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Plastic Bodies:

Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology


Tom Sparrow

of Levinas Unhinged (Zero Books, 2013) and The


End of Phenomenology (Edinburgh University Press,
2014). Whereas most contemporary treatments
of phenomenology approach it in a spirit of either
servitude or disdain, Sparrow is cut from a different
cloth. While deeply sympathetic to the historical
aims of phenomenology, Sparrow opposes the
first-person orientation of the phenomenological
method and its often unsatisfactory account of
embodiment. Plastic Bodies aims to reconstruct the
unpopular concept of sensation in the wake of the
rescue efforts made by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and
Emmanuel Levinas.

OPEN HUMANITIES PRESS


Cover design by Katherine Gillieson Illustration by Tammy Lu

Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology Tom Sparrow

This is the third book by Tom Sparrow, the author

With a foreword by
Catherine Malabou

Plastic Bodies:
Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology

New Metaphysics
Series Editors: Graham Harman and Bruno Latour
The world is due for a resurgence of original speculative metaphysics. The New Metaphysics series aims to provide a safe house for such thinking amidst the demoralizing caution
and prudence of professional academic philosophy. We do not aim to bridge the analyticcontinental divide, since we are equally impatient with nail-filing analytic critique and the
continental reverence for dusty textual monuments. We favor instead the spirit of the intellectual gambler, and wish to discover and promote authors who meet this description. Like
an emergent recording company, what we seek are traces of a new metaphysical sound
from any nation of the world. The editors are open to translations of neglected metaphysical
classics, and will consider secondary works of especial force and daring. But our main interest is to stimulate the birth of disturbing masterpieces of twenty-first century philosophy.

Tom Sparrow
Plastic Bodies:
Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology

OPEN HUMANITIES PRESS


London 2015

First edition published by Open Humanities Press 2015


Freely available online at
Copyright 2015 Tom Sparrow, Foreword copyright 2015 Catherine Malabou

This is an open access book, licensed under a Creative Commons By Attribution Share
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by the above. Read more about the license at creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
Design by Katherine Gillieson
Cover Illustration by Tammy Lu
The cover illustration is copyright Tammy Lu 2015,
used under a Creative Commons By Attribution license (CC-BY).

ISBN-13 978-1-78542-001-6

OPEN HUMANITIES PRESS

Open Humanities Press is an international, scholar-led open access publishing collective


whose mission is to make leading works of contemporary critical thought freely available
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Contents
Acknowledgments9
Abbreviations11
Foreword: After the Flesh by Catherine Malabou13
Introduction21
1. Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 25
2. Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 67
3. Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 111
4. Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 144
5. On Aesthetic Plasticity177
Conclusion: Plasticity and Power 219
Notes237
Works Cited274

For Fred Evans, tireless activist, teacher, and friend

Acknowledgments

This project was born at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


During my time there I forged many friendships with faculty, staff, and
students. Among those relationships several require recognition for the
traces they have left on this book. Fred Evans not only taught me how
to read Merleau-Ponty, he graciously and patiently helped me refine my
central argument through its several iterations. I cannot imagine a more
dedicated mentor or companion. Without Dan Selcer I would never have
come to see the importance of philosophical method and I would have a
much more routine grasp of the history of philosophy. George Yancy offered
nothing but encouraging words and careful attention, even when I contacted
him without warning at home. His encouragement will never cease. I
am indebted to Silvia Benso of the Rochester Institute of Technology for
agreeing to review my work on Levinas; her remarks on the text, even when
critical, were always enthusiastic.
Among my other friends from Duquesne I must single out Pat Craig,
John Fritz, Jacob Graham, Adam Hutchinson, Keith Martel, and Ryan
Pfahl, all of whom contributed insight into my project and helped me
think through its problems. Jim Swindal always was, and always will be, a
vigilant advocate for me and the philosophical community at Duquesne.
The directors of the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center, first
Dan Martino and now Jeff McCurry, always supported my work and

1010

accommodated me at the Center. Graham Harman has played a significant


role in the formation of my own philosophical position, and his generous
email correspondence from Cairo during the writing of my first draft was
much appreciated. Now I thank him for allowing my book to find a home in
his and Bruno Latours New Metaphysics series. With the help of liaison
Jon Cogburn, Mark Allan Ohm and Joel Andrepont readily accepted the
task of translating Catherine Malabous foreword. They did so with muchappreciated swiftness and skill. Finally, I am grateful to the two anonymous
reviewers for Open Humanities Press who kindly asked me to craft portions
of my text with more care and precision. Thanks to all of you.

Abbreviations

Texts by Levinas
EE

Existence and Existents

OB

Otherwise than Being

TI

Totality and Infinity

TO

Time and the Other

Texts by Merleau-Ponty
Child

The Childs Relations with Others

CD

Czannes Doubt

EM

Eye and Mind

ILVS

Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence

Nature

Nature

PP

Phenomenology of Perception

PrP

The Primacy of Perception

Shadow

The Philosopher and His Shadow

VI

The Visible and the Invisible

Foreword
After the Flesh
by Catherine Malabou
Translated by Mark Allan Ohm and Joel Andrepont

The body becomes worthy of philosophical examination when it is no longer


a question of the body but of my body. Husserl introduces a fundamental
distinction between Krper, the objective, anatomico-physiological body, and
Leib, ones own body [le corps propre], the living body, the place of sensations
and emotions, the flesh. This distinction marks a decisive development in
his thinking and saves the body from being merely an object of conceptual
devaluation. By rejecting the methods of descriptive psychology in order to
establish a transcendental phenomenology, Husserl grants a constitutive role
to the flesh as lived body. My body must be considered in its individuality,
its incarnation or embodiment (Verleiblichung), which amounts to considering
the living corporeal body [le vcu corporel] in the purity of its manifestation.
My body is a token of my own immediate worldly presence; it presents to
the mind what Husserl calls hyletic data (the bodys perceptual, sensory
content, like touch, look, voice, kinaesthesia). In this way, the body becomes
the worldly presence of an intentional subjects mental life.
The phenomenological body stands in the sphere of immanence (the
sensation that I have of my bodys immediate presence in the world), a
sphere which, after the epoch, is reduced to the presence of the thing itself.

14 Catherine Malabou

Sensation means that the thing reveals itself in the flesh and stands there
before our eyes as something given to itself and in actuality.
The Husserlian analyses of the living corporeal body once again mark
a major advancement in the history of philosophy. As a result of these
analyses, the body, quite simply, acquires a value equal to that of the mind.
The mind is no longer separable from the flesh that it animates and which
gives it corporeal spatiality.
We can therefore ask whether it is possible to go further in
this recognition of the essential status of the incarnate body than
phenomenology does. It seems not. Even researchers in the cognitive
sciences and the philosophy of mind still draw from Husserl: Francisco
Varela, Alva No, Evan Thompson, and Shaun Gallagher, to name but a
few, situate their work within his direct lineage. Is the phenomenological
approach to the body impossible to overcome?
In an incredibly daring gesture, Tom Sparrow responds in the negative,
and attempts to clear the way for nothing less than a post-phenomenological
approach to the body.
Sparrow is clearly well aware of the considerable debt that continental
philosophy owes to phenomenology. Phenomenology made possible
several claims about the body: that it is not the case that the body is the
tomb of the soul, as Plato claimed; that it is not the case that the body is a
neutral extension caught in the movement which animates it, as Descartes
showed; and that the body is much more than the place of sensibility, as
Kant defined it. In fact, the senses always grasp things as they are for the
consciousness that perceives them. It is in this way that corporeal space
acquires its identity within the general realm of extension [ltendue gnrale].
Thus there is no a priori spatial body. Despite all of this, Sparrow writes:
I attempt to build a theory of embodiment that could only come after
phenomenology.
Why must we distance ourselves from the phenomenological approach
to the body? Isnt the notion of embodiment essential? Hasnt it been used
since in all the human sciences? Nonetheless, Sparrow maintains that we
now need a post-phenomenological perspective. By this, he writes, I
mean a perspective which is not simply anti-phenomenological, but one

After the Flesh 15

which has gone through phenomenology and retained its kernel of truth,
even if this kernel proves to be non-phenomenological in nature.
The problem is the following: I just said that the phenomenological
conception of the Leib made possible the de-objectification of the body.
But this necessary de-objectification has been clearly accompanied by a
de-materialization. If the flesh was essential as the future of the physical
body, now we need to question the future of the flesh. For this reason,
the materiality of the body must be rethought. Sparrow argues that the
phenomenological flesh in fact lacks matter. We need to reconceptualize
matter. How can we avoid lapsing into both the naturalization and
neutrality of the body? How can we conceive of matter without reverting to
mechanism? In order to properly distinguish matter from mechanism, we
will call this post-phenomenological materiality plasticity. Plasticity is thus
defined as that which comes after the flesh.
The task is therefore to rethink the union between the material and the
meaningful, which does not necessarily entail the reduction of the mind
to the brain, or consciousness to synaptic/neural activity. Nevertheless, it
involves a rematerialization; sensation is the key to the process and will aid
us in our understanding.
But first let us insist on an intermediary path. In order to examine
the insufficiencies of the phenomenological concept of the flesh, Sparrow
begins by pluralizing the theories of embodiment. In an entirely unexpected
manner, he confronts the two extremes of the phenomenological specter:
Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. They also criticized Husserl in their own way
in the name of a certain materiality: I see the aesthetics of Levinas and
Merleau-Ponty as indispensable for reconciling a pluralistic conception
of embodiment, even if ultimately the two thinkers hold incompatible
metaphysical positions. Comparing these two philosophers allows us to
understand what their critiques of classical phenomenology fail to do in
order to become a materialist phenomenology, a philosophical undertaking
Sparrow proposes to provide the grounds for: My own view of the body as
plastic emerges through an exploration of the phenomenologies of MerleauPonty and Levinas, with whom I travel up to the point at which they no
longer pursue the questions that I would like answered by a theory of
embodiment.

16 Catherine Malabou

Merleau-Ponty and Reversible Bodies


Husserl insisted that the models of Euclidean geometry were incompatible
with the perception of the reality of ones own body insofar as things are
only represented in perception in the context of a geometry of surfaces.
We can perceive neither the six faces of a cube nor the totality of our own
body. Husserl argues that human perception includes the supplementary
dimension of the infinite, including time in the perception of space
(Riemannian space). In this way, the dynamics of a spatial body is integrated
into perception itself. Thus, there is a perceptual creation of a dynamic
image of the body, adding kinesthetic variations of the body of the thing
to the dynamic image of our own movement in the spatial encounter. For
example, if I walk toward a tree which is in my spatial field, the tree moves
toward me just as much as I move toward it. We can therefore contrast this
phenomenon, called a Riemannian image, with Euclidean perception.
For Merleau-Ponty, however, Husserl does not go far enough in grasping
the interaction between body and world. Merleau-Ponty believes that
his conception of the corporeal schema makes up for this lacuna. In the
Phenomenology of Perception in particular, Merleau-Ponty himself makes use
of the notion of plasticity. Plasticity is directly linked to being-in-the-world
and to how the body develops its mediating role in the world. [T]he
subject penetrates into the object by perception, assimilating its structure
into his substance, and through this body the object directly regulates his
movements.1 Composed of habits, circuits, and sensorimotor schemata
organized through sensory and comportmental experience, the corporeal
schema already materializes the living body inasmuch as the latter can no
longer distinguish its own flesh from that of the world.
The reversible body is both touching and touched, and the limit that
separates a body from the world as well as from other bodies is, precisely,
a plastic limit, that is, a malleable and pliable limit. Sparrow reminds us
that: By reversible Merleau-Ponty means that at any moment the one
who sees can become the one seen, or the one who touches can become the
touched. Merleau-Ponty completes the material liberation of the concept
of intersubjectivity, which Husserl still considers in relation to ones own
selfhood [got].

After the Flesh 17

Despite all this, Sparrow argues that the corporeal schema still remains
too personal [individuel], too anchored in an identity which can evolve,
but which nevertheless remains what it is. In both Merleau-Ponty and
Husserl, the integrity of ones own body in a sense resists its transformation
through the materiality of the world. Examples from pathology demonstrate
this resistance. For Merleau-Ponty, illness engenders a loss of identity,
that is, a loss rather than a transformation of plasticity: In the patient
the perceptual field has lost this plasticity. The world in its entirety no
longer suggests any meaning to him and conversely the meanings which
occur to him are not embodied any longer in the given world.2 The loss
of plasticity entails a modification of the corporeal schema, this system
of equivalents whereby the different motor tasks are instantaneously
transferable.3 Of course, this loss is at least partially compensated for in
the illness. But, for Merleau-Ponty, it is clear that compensating plasticity is
not as strong as the primary formative plasticity of being-in-the-world. The
meaning that it confers is an accidental meaning, without autonomy, which
effectively initiates no new modality of being-in-the-world. Illness, writes
Merleau-Ponty,
is a complete form of existence and the procedures which
it employs to replace normal functions which have been
destroyed are equally pathological phenomena. It is impossible
to deduce the normal from the pathological, deficiencies from
the substitute functions, by a mere change of the sign. We
must take substitutions as substitutions, as allusions to some
fundamental function that they are striving to make good, and
the direct image of which they fail to furnish.4
Plasticity can thus be lost, and with it the integrity of the schema.

Levinas and Susceptible Bodies


Perhaps it is necessary to think that I am not in my body. Perhaps my
body does not first say I, but you. Perhaps it characterizes itself in the
first place by an absolute passivity through which the alterity of the flesh
manifests itself to itself. Levinas maintains that the subject cannot stay
identical to itself.

18 Catherine Malabou

Let us begin from Levinass critique of Husserl. Sparrow writes that


Levinass objection to phenomenological method is straightforward: if the
objectifying acts of theoretical consciousness, what Husserl calls meaninggiving (Sinngebung) acts, are our primary mode of access to things, then
those things can only appear to us as representations whose content is
predetermined by the representing subject. In short, phenomenology
becomes a modified transcendental idealism.
It is therefore a matter of breaking with representation. For Levinas,
the distinction between the body and objects of the world tends to blur,
but also opens up a material dimension to sensation. For him, there is no
corporeal schema strictly speaking, but a dwelling in others. In my home,
I am in the home of another. My furniture is hers. I am nourished by her
presence, which is simultaneously inexhaustible. Passive joy [la jouissance de
la passivit] is established on the horizon of desire. We could not know how
to praise the striking beauty of the analysis of everydayness in Totality and
Infinity, where nourishment, dwelling, and ornaments are described with as
much ethical care and attention as are individuals. Everything is infinitely
susceptible, and consequently, there is no totality [tout] but an infinity
of encounters.
Nonetheless, Levinas rejects the concept of plasticity. The other, he
writes, is never what appear[s] in plastic form as an image, a portrait. Its
beauty is this supreme presence breaking through its plastic form with
youth,5 which is why the other resists. Plasticity remains confined to the
sculptural domain, bound to its function of embodiment or figuration in
general, an enduring [attarde] function, always older than the face. The
face, precisely, is not plastic; on the contrary, it can only break through
its own plastic image,6 break up form.7 It stands beyond form. It is a
pure trace: This existence abandoned by all and by itself, a trace of itself,
imposed on me, assigns me in my last refuge with an incomparable force
of assignation, inconvertible into forms [which] would give me at once a
countenance.8
While the appearance of the face, its epiphany always provokes an
emotional and sensible overturning (for another as well as for me), this
overturning is not based on a transformation but on an abrupt break [cart
brusque] without material or physiological genesis: The face of the Other

After the Flesh 19

at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me.9
And this destruction is unimpeded [sans procs]: The absolute experience
is not disclosure but revelation: a coinciding of the expressed with him
who expresses, which is the privileged manifestation of the Other, the
manifestation of a face over and beyond form. Form incessantly betraying
its own manifestation, congealing into a plastic form, for it is adequate to the
samealienates the exteriority of the other.10
Is not this denial of plasticity Levinass admission of resistance to the
materiality that he continually celebrates elsewhere? Behind this denial isnt
there the reaffirmation of the fleshly [charnel] character of the face, in the
phenomenological sense of the term, with all the authenticity, spirituality,
and invariability that this fleshly character entails?

Plasticity as the Future of the Flesh


Sparrow claims that what is missing in [these views] is the practical or
embodied dimension of sensation, or affirmation that it is sensation that
delivers the materiality of the world to sensibility. And later he writes that
instead of reversibility and susceptibility, my view features the plasticity
of the body and argues that the dynamism of plasticity is more true to
the aesthetic dimension of existence as well as the transactional nature of
intercorporeal encounters.
How can we understand this new plasticity? How can we simultaneously
understand this new aesthetics, which is presented here as both a theory
of sensation and a theory of beauty?
In order to understand plasticity, we must begin from the plastic material,
since it is plasticity which first necessitated its name. For Merleau-Ponty, the
reversibility of touching-touched alludes to elasticity more than plasticity.
Plastic refers to a material that cannot retrieve its original form once
sculpted or molded. The plastic material retains the trace of its deformation.
In this sense, plasticity inhibits reversibility. It also inhibits Levinasian
susceptibility in the sense that the plastic is also an explosive material, which
suspends the face-to-face encounter and assures its destructive violence of
all alterity.
Of course, the flesh of the body and the flesh of the world are one.
Nevertheless, this unity owes as much to the matter of things of the world

20 Catherine Malabou

as to the intentionality of the animate or incarnate body. Matter is also


what destroys. Matter is also what has no body. Matter is also what forms
the body precisely by contrasting the body with its objectality. Sparrows
analyses of the body-matter couple are extraordinary in their beauty,
evocative power, and precision.
A case in point is his analysis of architecture. Sparrow draws from
Juhani Pallasmaas work, according to which bodies adopt the structures
of buildings in their skeletal structure and bodily sensations. Another
astonishing passage draws from Yukio Mishima, who described his
experience of bodybuilding in Sun and Steel: His body lives from,
metabolizes the steel no less than the sun. His body engages organic and
inorganic matter and, enacting an unnatural participation, converts both
into muscle. The idea that Mishima metabolizes sun and steel is more
than metaphor. His body is sculpted and polished by repetitive exposure to
metal and solar energy. Sun and steel territorialize his body and augment
his vitality.
By taking up Merleau-Pontys notion of habit, staying in tune with
Levinass hospitality, and recalling Husserls fascinating pages in Ideen II,
Sparrow clears his own path, which consists in inserting mechanical parts,
shards of metal, stones, and machines into the body of phenomenology.
Its plasticity delineates the space of a sensation and a sensibility that
objectivizes the world by constructing it as one creates a work of art, a
performance, an installation, or as one takes flight. Halfway between Husserl
and Simondon, Merleau-Ponty and James, Levinas, Deleuze, and Dewey,
Sparrow invites us to question this new dimension where the body is no
longer the flesh. Plastic disembodiment is presented as a new economy of
the sensible.
Here is not just another rehashing of the traditional division between
the integrity of the phenomenological body, on the one hand, and its
deconstruction, on the other. The incorporeal materials are neither signs
nor symptoms nor immaterial things. We are beyond the difference between
presence and the critique of metaphysics. It is no longer a matter of deciding
between autoaffected and deterritorialized bodies.
The materialist phenomenology presented here is a rupture. A
conservative rupture, of course, but a rupture nonetheless. A rupture in
formation, like our bodies are.

Introduction

This is a book about embodiment, one of the cardinal themes of


contemporary philosophy. This is also a book about phenomenology,
which has done more than any other school to bring the body to the
center of philosophical analysis. But this is not a book of phenomenology.
While it draws liberally from the resources of phenomenology, the idea of
embodiment assembled in its pages is quite often at odds with the firstperson orientation of the phenomenological method. It is therefore as much
about the limits of phenomenology as it is about the limits of the body.
In the last analysis it is really about how we might rebuild the somewhat
unfashionable concept of sensation following the rescue attempts made by
Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas.
Phenomenology is a natural place to begin this project, but not the
right place to end it. This is because sensation, as I understand it here, is
unsuitable for proper phenomenological investigation. It does not present
itself phenomenally as an object of consciousness, or as what Husserl
calls an intentional object. Sensation is something that happens below the
phenomenal level, so at best it is a mediated datum of consciousness. Both
Merleau-Ponty and Levinas recognized this. How, then, can we speak of
this non-phenomenal sensation? My contention is that we experience it
primarily through its effects and can thereby think it on the basis of these
effects. Perception, passion, cognition, consciousness, identity, and freedom
are some of these effects. These are indeed accessed phenomenally, but as
products of sensation. This is not to say that sensation is their efficient cause,

22Introduction

however. It is to say that sensation is their necessary condition. Sensation is


thus an object as well-suited for speculation as it is for empirical analysis.
Both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas explicitly opposed the latter, naturalistic,
approach to sensation from the perspective of the former, and it is their
perspective that I try to radicalize in this book.
To be clear: I am not attempting a phenomenology of sensation, and
neither were Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. What I do is to take up their
speculative remarks about sensation and develop these into a novel theory
of embodiment, but one markedly more speculative than phenomenological.
If I had to give a name to this project, I would call it a speculative aesthetics,
although it certainly falls short of a comprehensive treatise. If its speculative
dimension seems too programmatic, consider it a promise of future work.
As it stands, it provides a constructive reading of the phenomenology of the
body, but in the service of a non-phenomenological metaphysics.
Sensation is thus approached from two perspectives, the
phenomenological and the speculative. A simple twofold argument is
presented: sensation is the basic material of subjectivity; as such, sensation is
responsible in a non-trivial way for the subjects power to exist. In question
throughout the text is the function and constitution of the aesthetic
dimension of embodiment, specifically the autonomous reality of sensation
(aisthesis) and the materiality of aesthetics. Insofar as this materiality
operates on the body below the level of conscious reflection, which is to say,
imperceptibly, it resists phenomenological analysis. Phenomenology indeed
has much to teach us about what it is like to live through sensations, but
a hybrid method that draws upon phenomenology while simultaneously
exceeding it is required to circumscribe the concept of sensation.
Methodologically speaking, I approach phenomenology historically, not
as a practitioner. I do not proceed from the epoch or phenomenological
reduction, nor do I adhere to any specific phenomenological principles
or its correlationism. It seems to me that if one claims to be doing
phenomenology, then there must be at least some principles (the reductions,
eidetic variation, for instance) guiding ones investigation. Otherwise,
in what sense is it a method? As I have not identified and implemented
any specific phenomenological principles, I cannot say that my view is
the product of the phenomenological method. Instead, phenomenology

Introduction23

appears here as an object of historical investigation and a tool for conceptual


engineering.
Since I am primarily interested in how phenomenology fits into the
history of embodiment, I do not conduct an exhaustive reading of the
oeuvres of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, nor do I perform a reconstruction
of what their philosophies really strive to accomplish. The texts of
phenomenology are taken up with the express aim of developing a theory
of embodiment which takes sensation as its leading concept, something
that cannot be done without looking carefully at the aesthetics of
phenomenology. This entails an ambivalent reading of Merleau-Ponty. On
the one hand, I draw liberally from his phenomenology of perception and
the immense contribution he makes to the philosophy of embodiment and
aesthetic theory. On the other hand, I insist on the basic immaterialism
and anthropocentrism of his philosophy, which I attribute to his allegiance
to phenomenology and non-Cartesian dualist ontology. As for Levinas, I
admittedly read his work heretically. This simply means that I downplay
his ethical programwhich is, for many Levinasians, the essence of his
philosophyand emphasize instead his contribution to the metaphysics of
embodiment, which is often overshadowed in the literature. Merleau-Ponty
and Levinas set the stage for this book precisely because they inaugurate
a renewal of the concept of sensation. But this renewal is not just the
work of phenomenology; or, it cannot be completed by phenomenology.
Both thinkers are also metaphysicians, and it is necessary to see how
their respective (and in many ways univocal) responses to the history of
philosophy square with what comes before and after them. My justification
for calling them metaphysicians derives from the fact that they often make
speculative claims that lack phenomenological evidence. Instead of seeing
these claims simply as a breach of method, I take them as gestures toward
an emergent philosophy of the body.
Naturally, it will be asked why I bother working through phenomenology
at all. The reason is again historical. It is certainly true that the
presuppositionsor purported lack thereofof phenomenology and the
other currents of twentieth-century philosophy diverge significantly. There
are, however, more points of contact between phenomenology and, say,
Deleuze and Spinoza, than usually acknowledged by partisan readings of

24Introduction

the history of twentieth-century French philosophy. While I do think that


readers must at the end of the day make some decisions about the relative
merits of Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, or Levinas and Deleuze, to see their
respective projects as mutually exclusive is to ignore the common history of
their inquiries and to simplify a complex relationship.
The kind of philosophy undertaken here could not have occurred before
phenomenology turned to the body. Philosophers were thinking about
and analyzing bodies before the twentieth century, of course, but their
concerns were often quite different from those debated in the last century.
For instance, where early modern philosophers like Leibniz and Spinoza
were eager to determine the metaphysical constitution of individual bodies
and, indeed, ask whether or not individuals actually exist, contemporary
thinkers of embodiment are primarily concerned with how the body informs
knowledge acquisition, gender and racial identity, or intersubjectivity.
Embodiment is now thoroughly incorporated into almost all the human
sciences and phenomenology has been integral to this incorporation. It
has even gained ground with analytic philosophers. What is called for
now, however, is a post-phenomenological perspective. By this I mean a
perspective which is not simply anti-phenomenological, but one which has
gone through phenomenology and retained its kernel of truth, even if this
kernel proves to be non-phenomenological in nature. For me, this is the
truth of plasticity.
Therefore, I attempt to build a theory of embodiment that could only
come after phenomenology. But I also retrieve a pre-phenomenological,
occasionally pre-critical perspective, one which draws liberally from the
materialist and empiricist traditions to see what effects they can produce
today. In this respect this book is a work of metaphysics. It does not claim
to have invented a brand new theory of the body, but to have mobilized
several philosophical traditions and rebuilt the body using a diverse team
of thinkers.

Chapter 1
Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation
Like a clever thief hidden inside a house, breathing quietly,
waiting until everyones asleep. I have looked deep inside
myself, trying to detect something that might be there.
But just as our consciousness is a maze, so too is our body.
Everywhere you turn theres darkness, and a blind spot.
Everywhere you find silent hints, everywhere a surprise is
waiting for you.
Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Problem and Method


Most of us experience our bodies daily as supported and resisted by the
features of our environmentthe solid earth, the smooth surfaces of our
homes, the climate-controlled rooms we work and play in. A wooden chair
supports my weight as I type, a woolen duvet insulates me while I sleep. This
point can be put in grander terms, as Glen Mazis has: On an immediate
level, we feel as though the earth is still. On a deeper level, we feel held
by an embracing earth. It actively holds onto us, giving us the weight to
walk, work, and love. The earth is not just inert, but a protector actively
engaged with us.11 Occasionally we are given over to the realization that
the spaces we move through possess the power to overwhelm or destroy us.

26 Chapter 1

The violence may surface from within as an untamed passion, or as a chance


affliction or retraction of the environments material support. Csar Airas
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter allegorizes the possibility in this
description of a lightning strike:
What happened next bypassed his senses and went straight
into his nervous system. In other words, it was over very
quickly; it was pure action, a wild concatenation of events.
The storm broke suddenly with a spectacular lightning bolt
that traced a zig-zag arc clear across the sky. The thunder
crashing down impossibly enveloped him in millions of
vibrations. The horse began to turn beneath him. It was still
turning when a lightning bolt struck him on the head. Like a
nickel statue, man and beast were lit up with electricity. For
one horrific moment, regrettably to be repeated, Rugendas
witnessed the spectacle of his body shining.12
Certain bodily transformations never present themselves phenomenally. Or
they do, but only after they have happened, like an afterimage whose original
image is forever lost. They affect us unwittingly, spontaneously causing a
malfunction or disablement of the body that consciousness never directly
witnesses. Common among these events is death, which, as Epicurus
teaches, is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and
that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.13 Epicurus may be right about
our experience of death, but I hope to show that he is wrong about corpses.
Sensation, I will claim, is something undergone by animate and inanimate
bodies alike, but it is undergone in such a way that we tend to forget it ever
happened or that it is happening at every moment. Death, too, is happening
at this very momentfor most of us, so imperceptibly that we only regard
ourselves as living bodies.
No one will deny that environments impact identities. Home, school,
work, and travel accumulate in us. The familiar, the public, the common
become us. That we are where we come from is a truth readily affirmed by
everyone. How does this happen? The present book provides a response to
this question by investigating the promises and limits of phenomenology for
conceptualizing the nature of bodies and their relation to the environment.
Principally it asks: What individuates a body? What constitutes its structural

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 27

integrity? Of what is the body capable? These questions are answered both
indirectly and directly through collaborative and critical engagements
with Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, both of whom offer in their analyses
of sensation and sensibility directives rooted in, and gesturing beyond,
the subjectivity of the lived body. Since sensation is not often featured
in phenomenological discussions, and because sensation, I contend, is
necessary for conceiving both the activity and passivity of the body, its
legitimacy as a philosophical concept is also defended. The turn to sensation
in Merleau-Ponty and Levinas marks a significant departure from the
residual idealism of Husserlian phenomenologyindeed, from the history
of philosophy after Kant. In a sense, then, what I attempt here is a rescue
of sensation from its devastation at the hands of the Critical philosophy.
Phenomenology, I try to demonstrate, gets this rescue off the ground.
Sensations revitalization has ontological and practical consequences
that are nascent in phenomenology, but which cannot be fully captured by
phenomenological analyses beholden to constructivist epistemology and
aligned with anti-realist metaphysics. Therefore, I will eventually break with
Merleau-Ponty and Levinas to deploy a realist metaphysics of sensation,
one which thinks the body as a shining spectacle charged with forces
uncontrived by eye or mind.
The movement beyond phenomenology raises ethical and political
questions about how we should and should not comport our bodies toward
others; it also poses questions about how we impact and structure our
environments. But these derive from the more fundamental question of
bodily relations. The problem of how we as individuals actually relate to
other individuals, or how it is possible for one person to interact with, act
upon, or know another individual must be addressed before we can draw
up prescriptions. The relation question is epistemological and ontological;
traditionally it has manifested as the problem of other minds or, more
recently, the problem of intersubjectivity. These problems underlie
the ongoing discussion of corporeal difference and its ethico-political
consequences in contemporary continental philosophy. The saliency of
these specific problems, however, only makes obvious sense in a dualists
metaphysical framework. It is of course possible to see the ethical and
ontological as articulated or collapsed into each other, as in the monism

28 Chapter 1

of Spinoza. One of the principal challenges for post-dualist philosophy,


Spinozist or other, is how to come to terms with this collapse.
Non-dualists like Spinoza must first explain how individuals emerge as
individuals. Only then can they trouble themselves with how individuals
can and should interact. The problem of individuation fascinated early
modern philosophers as much as it is resurgent in contemporary thinkers
like Simondon, Deleuze, DeLanda, Badiou and others. The dualists
problem of how I come to know the mind of another person, when all I
perceive is the behavior of that person, only arises if he actually encounters
another as an individual and believes that beyond his or her body there lies
an ontologically unique thing called a mind. This is of course the ontology
of Descartes, but it is also the ontology of Kant, who sees personhood as
constituted by the hybrid of extended human body/non-extended, rational,
and self-legislating ego.
From a practical viewpoint dualist ontology is a brilliant way to
safeguard the freedom and, consequently, responsibility of the individual,
because dualism acknowledges the bodys subjection to causal laws while
at the same time placing the mind/soul/ego/person at an infinite remove
from the causal sphere. That is, outside the genesis of history. So, for
instance, Kants Critique of Pure Reason, which is not primarily a work in
practical philosophy, makes the point of specifying the dual nature of the
self in order to protect the freedom of the will from the determinations of
causality.14 The body suffers in the empirical world while the ego enjoys its
isolation in the transcendental sphere; the integrity (moral and structural)
of the person transcends, and in a sense structures, the corporeal world.
Some consequences entailed in this distinction permit Kant to refer his
ethical and political philosophy back to his epistemological, ontological, and
aesthetic philosophies. These provide a strategic ontological foundation for
his critique of practical reason and metaphysics of morals.15 By entwining,
without collapsing, the practical and ontological in the transcendental
sphere, Kant can then assert in the Critique of Judgment that it is possible
for aesthetic judgment of the dynamically sublime to consider nature as a
might that has no dominance over us and, consequently, to awaken in our
power of reason, a different and nonsensible standard derived from the
superiority [of the mind] over nature itself in its immensity.16 Since the

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 29

Kantian subject sits outside of natural events, it is able to feel pleasure in


the face of terrifying spectacles like natural disasters, and even exploit such
events to reassert its intellectual power over, and freedom from, the material
effects of nature.17 Ironically, the feeling of powerlessness generated in the
subject in the face of the sublime gets translated into a moral sentiment that
then triggers the supersensible moral command which, as Kant phrases it,
obligates absolutely18 and evinces the moral superiority of humans over
nature. As Paul Guyer puts it, [the spectacle of the dynamical sublime]
gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the physical power of
nature and, in so doing, reveals the imperviousness of our purely moral
character to threats from nature.19 The systematic link between aesthetics
and morality is possible, for Kant, because the subject is essentially
conceived as an intellectual being with unlimited freedom,20 not a
corporeal being susceptible to the directives of the natural world.
The remarkable strength of the dualist position on subjectivity rests on
how it logically reinforces the metaphysical with the practical, and vice versa,
while leaving the intellectual or interior world uncontaminated by concrete
events. Moreover, it opens an ethical space in which the sensible is subject
to the judgments of the supersensible, while the sensible as such is afforded
no inherent practical value. The capability and freedom of the individual are
effectively immunized from the corporeality of other individuals as well the
influences of the material world.
The embodied view of subjectivity that I will draw out of MerleauPonty and Levinas, among others, contests the dualist dichotomy along
with its ethical and political implications. It not only assigns itself the
task of accounting for the emergence of the subject, it also raises the
difficulty of deriving a non-formal ethical imperative from the sensible
realm without committing the naturalistic fallacy.21 My conclusion argues
that the formality of Kants practical philosophy neglects the aesthetics of
embodiment we find in Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, and that this neglect
results from a difference of ontology. From the perspective of embodied
subjectivity, we cannot maintain a basic distinction between our aesthetic
and moral sensibilities, as though they belong to two distinct capacities
or faculties. We cannot concur with Kant that our moral sensibility
operates in a space that cannot be traversed by the directives of corporeal

30 Chapter 1

life, or rather, that ultimately our affective life is at best the servant of our
intellectual judgment. Instead, the material form of our moral sensibility
and its ethical imperatives must be submitted as a replacement for the
Kantian model.
Of course, the monist and materialist traditions, from Democritus to
Hobbes, Spinoza, Marx and beyond have always contested the dualists
ontology and resolved the intersubjective problem in various ways. But,
at least since Hegel, the dualist framework has been under attack from a
perspective that can generally be called non-dualism or, perhaps, postdualism. Hegel responds to Kants partitioning of the world into noumenal
and phenomenal regions by insisting on the superfluity of the noumenal.
The Phenomenology of Spirit effectively demonstrates that the noumenal
realm is unnecessary for explaining the movement of thought or history,
and cannot be legitimately garnered from the Kantian critical project. Yet it
would seem odd to apply the monist label to Hegels philosophy. Likewise,
it is not necessarily a materialism because it allows for the existence of
forces (Spirit, Concept) that are neither physical in nature nor subject to
causal laws. Bergsons lan vital would be an analogous force, one which
shifts his non-dualist philosophy away from materialism and into vitalism.
Nietzsche, too, could also be considered a non-dualist, yet non-materialist,
philosopher. Nietzsche is too much of a psychoanalyst to be an eliminativist,
and his philosophy of the body displays a complex understanding of both
the quantitative and qualitative, physical and cosmological, as well as the
aleatory dimensions of experience. And yet, he is more than willing to
(almost) reduce consciousness to a dynamism of forces.22
What is the metaphysical status of these immaterial concepts or their
counterparts in the phenomenological tradition, which worries more about
overcoming dualism than it does about fending off charges of monism? If
they are neither physical nor spiritual, where do we situate Hegels Spirit,
Nietzsches force, or Bergsons lan? A central challenge for post-dualism
is to overcome dualism without arresting motion, that is, without reducing
animation to mechanism. The attempt at a non-reductive post-dualist
ontology is alive in both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. This is one of their
primary attractions.

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 31

I acknowledge that it is problematic to place phenomenologists like


Merleau-Ponty and Levinas into classical categories. But why, for instance,
does Merleau-Pontys late notion of the flesh (la chair) not result in a
monist ontology, a monism of the flesh? Or, why does the identification of
the self with the body not admit of a monism, as is sometimes contended?23
Commentators prefer to cast what would otherwise be his monism as
Merleau-Pontys philosophy of immanence, but it remains necessary to
understand why this distinction is not merely nominal. The primacy of
perception thesisthat is, the thesis that the world of perception is borne
of perceptionparadoxically holds that bodies and things are individuated
prior to my perception and that subject and object are internally related and
originate in perception. This avoids the standard version of dualism, but it
also implies a contradiction. The apparent contradiction dissolves when we
see that from the perspective of perception subject and object emerge together
(idealism), but from the ontological perspective objects exist independently of
the human perceiver (realism). Nevertheless, both subject and object belong
to a single flesh, the sensible as such, whose purpose as a concept is to
deflate the quarrel between idealism and realism about subjects and objects.
Still, there is a pervasive conceptual dualism in Merleau-Pontys texts, as
Renaud Barbaras has catalogued: clearly in the final analysis of the body
in terms of sensing and sensed, touching and touched, subject of the world
and part of the world. Such conceptual pairs are just so many displaced
modalities of the duality of consciousness and object.24
The ontological situation is no less conflicted in Levinas. Why should
we not consider Levinass elemental philosophy in Totality and Infinity
a monism? And the question of the transcendence of the human Other
(autrui) as a reformulation of the problem of other minds? What makes
these two thinkers post-dualist? What resources do they offer us for building
theories of subjectivity and intersubjectivity that genuinely challenge the
Cartesian and Kantian legacies? I contend that it is their phenomenological
ontology of the body and its tendency to draw conclusions that transgress
the bounds of phenomenological method that make the French
phenomenologists allies of post-dualism. Additionally, at times we find
Merleau-Ponty and Levinas reluctant to commit fully to the centrality of
the body for fear that such a commitment would result in a fully immanent

32 Chapter 1

ontology inhospitable to the transcendence of the phenomenon, in MerleauPontys case, and the Other, in Levinass. Advances in contemporary
philosophies of immanence give us more and more reason to see their fear
as unfounded.
Using Kant as a contrastive perspective throughout, I will defend a
corporeal ontology assembled from and against the phenomenological
resources of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. Corporeal ontology signifies a
view of the subject as embedded in, immanent to, extended throughout,
continuous with, and generated by its material environment and every
one of the other bodies that populate it. This is not an endorsement of
reductionism. On the contrary, it is partly a phenomenological thesis, and
I will use phenomenological evidence to support it. I insist, however, that
we need to move beyond the phenomenological perspective in order to
account for the elements of embodied subjectivity that phenomenologys
agent-centered methodology often disregards or puts out of play. This
requires a careful articulation of the materiality of the body and its genesis,
one which staves off reductionism and ventures certain speculative remarks
about the life of the body. In short, the phenomenology of the body requires
a non-phenomenological supplement in order to provide a comprehensive
account of embodiment. I provide this supplement by attending to the
sensitive/sensory25 life of the body, by reworking the concept of sensation,
and by enlisting a number of critics of phenomenology to build a theory of
embodiment that remains forever nascent in Merleau-Ponty and Levinas.
In recent decades contemporary philosophy witnessed a turn to
the body that threatened the dominance of dualist ontologies along
with the dualist practical philosophies they generate. The literature of
feminist, race, and queer theory attests to this. As does the literature of
deconstruction.26 The corporeal turn constitutes one of the most recent
attempts to develop the post-dualist project and complicate our pictures
of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and community. This is because the body
is now largely regarded as the locus of all aspects of subjectivity, not just
the practical. The mind is no longer conceived as independent from, and
thus invulnerable to, the operations of its material environment.27 Indeed,
it is dependent upon and, for some, identical to the environment. More on
this later. When the subject is conceived as a body, as identical to its body,

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 33

the problems as well as the solutions entailed in dualism begin to wither


away; the problem of how the mind interacts with the body disappears.
But the post-dualist framework also raises a number of new questions,
particularly about the nature of the subject and the workings of its mind,
its will, and its freedom to act. These are questions we will address along
the way, and provide a closer look at in the concluding chapter. Moreover,
we see the epistemological problem of other minds morph into the
ontological problems of alterity and individuation. Intercorporeity, rather
than intersubjectivity, more accurately describes the new problematic. Now,
instead of asking how we know other beings, we are led to ask how it is
possible for other beings to be other. What constitutes their difference and
what makes possible our interaction with them? What is the nature of this
interaction and is it possible to avoid violence as I engage the other? How, if
individuals actually exist, does an individual become autonomous?
In the post-dualist framework the ontological and practical aspects of
these questions cannot be separated. Because the subject is always already
embedded in a practical environment and is in every way a historical
product of that environment, what the subject does must be seen as identical
to what the subject is. Ethics, politics, and ontology must be regarded
as enmeshed at the most basic level. The remarks that follow attempt to
stake out a position on this new terrain and to situate this position in both
contemporary and historical contexts.

The Permanence of the Problem of Embodiment


Evidence that the embodied subject is currently enjoying great success,
and will most likely continue to do so in the future, can be gleaned from
the proliferation of works in feminist philosophy, critical race theory, and
environmental philosophy, to name just a few of the places where the body
is at the center of analysis. The continuing interest in the work of MerleauPonty and the emphatic return of Spinoza in disparate disciplines from
political philosophy (Negri, Balibar) to neuroscience (Damasio), as well as
recent attempts to retrieve the embodied dimension of Kant, Hegel, Husserl,
and Heidegger lend further credence to the claim that the embodied subject
is uprooting its Cartesian counterpart.28 This suggests that the recurrent
narrative which laments the forgetting or denigration of the body in the

34 Chapter 1

Western philosophical tradition is losing its timeliness. This is a promising,


if modest, victory over entrenched philosophical prejudices. Perhaps
even more suggestive is the fact that the body has gained momentum in
the philosophy of mind, particularly in studies of the embodied mind, a
movement driven by thinkers like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Andy
Clark, Alva No, Evan Thompson, Shaun Gallagher, Francisco Varela,
Bernard Andrieu, Antonio Damasio, and others. This movement seeks to
provide a non-dualist, post-Cartesian solution to the mind-body problem
that not only takes seriously the progress of cognitive science, but also
honors the first-person phenomenological perspective.
As Lakoff and Johnson acknowledge in their popular Philosophy in
the Flesh, the embodied mind program owes a tremendous debt to the
researches of pragmatism, especially the work of John Dewey, as well
as the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. We want to honor the two
greatest philosophers of the embodied mind, write Lakoff and Johnson.
They continue:
John Dewey, no less than Merleau-Ponty, saw that our bodily
experience is the primal basis for everything we can mean,
think, know, and communicate. He understood the full
richness, complexity, and philosophical importance of bodily
experience.29
Although the challenge to Western dualism expounded in their text restricts
its engagement with Dewey and Merleau-Ponty to introductory remarks,
Johnsons more recent book, The Meaning of the Body, delves further into the
philosophical debt incurred by embodiment theorists working alongside or
as cognitive scientists.
The increased visibility of the body in the study of consciousness and
subjectivity does not necessarily entail the reduction of the mind to the
brain, or consciousness to synaptic/neural activity, although this is one
possible outcome.30 The interrogation of the body has produced a fertile
variety of approaches, which have in turn yielded a range of unforeseeable
problems and possibilities for rethinking the constitution of the body, its
relations, and its place in the order of things, concepts, and meanings.
Many of these approaches can be called materialist, but we must be
careful not to assume that the embodied perspective always implies

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 35

physicalism or positivism. As Johnson insists: The brain is not the mind.


The brain is one key part of the entire pattern of embodied organismenvironment interaction that is the proper locus of mind and meaning.31
This interaction is comprised of several irreducible dimensions: the
biological, social, ecological, cultural, and phenomenological.32 Indeed,
Johnson offers a naturalistic thesis that is difficult to construe as reductive:
Meaning, he writes,
is not just a matter of concepts and propositions, but also
reaches down into the images, sensorimotor schemas, feelings,
qualities, and emotions that constitute our meaningful
encounter with our world. Any adequate account of meaning
must be built around the aesthetic dimensions that give our
experience its distinctive character and significance.33
It would seem that a balanced union of the material and meaningful
remains a live option for both analytic and continental philosophers. As it
should, if we desire a comprehensive account of experience. Like Johnson, I
think this balance is best struck in the aesthetic dimension.
In my view one of the most important efforts made by the embodied
mind folks is their attempt to undo the prejudice which says that our
qualitative, imaginative, affective, and aesthetic experiences are merely
subjective. This prejudice, as I have already indicated, only holds up in
an ontology that sees subject and object, body and world, as inhabiting
two distinct ontological realms, one internal and one external. What
contemporary cognitive science is showing, however, is that the subjective
(internal) and objective (external) worlds are actually continuous with each
other.34 The mind, in short, is extended throughout the environment and the
environment permeates the mind just. Such evidence has consequences
which I will try to elucidate throughoutfor how we conceive the structure
of subjectivity as well as individuality and relationality. It suggests that
there is no Cartesian dualistic person and that there exists no Kantian
radically autonomous person, with absolute freedom and a transcendent
reason that correctly dictates what is and isnt moral.35 Given that the
post-dualist perspective undermines the basic distinction between internal
psychic life and external corporeal life, theories of subjectivity are forced to
acknowledge the essentially liminal nature of experience: all experience is a

36 Chapter 1

product of the bodys transactions with environmental infrastructure and the


other bodies that populate it. To quote Johnson again,
meaningful form comes from the nature of our bodies and
the patterns of interaction we have with our environment, and
it is therefore shaped by our values, interests, and purposes
as active agents. As Dewey insistedand cognitive science
confirmsthought is never wholly divorced from feeling,
value, and the aesthetics of our embodied experience.36
Merleau-Ponty likewise advocates a transactional view of embodiment
that we will explore in the following two chapters. For now it is enough
to note that the classical dualist position not only proves itself prejudicial,
since its terms have lost their reference it has become literally senseless. In
order to foster the post-dualist perspective we have to unpack the carnal
life of the body in its liminal aspects, at its points of intersection with other
bodies, and once again see the aesthetics of embodiment as integral to
subjectivity. Note that aesthetics here denotes the comprehensive sensory life
of the body, from the perception of works of fine art to the dull sensations
of everyday life. Throughout this book I am understanding aesthetics in an
expanded sense that includes everything from the mundane to the fine, the
participatory to the spectacular. Aesthetic events can be contemplative or
deliberate, automatic or reactionary. Following Yuriko Saito, the aesthetic
for me includes any reactions we form toward the sensuous and/or design
qualities of any object, phenomenon, or activity.37 But it also includes active
responses, as well asand especiallythose that we do not consciously
form. Concomitantly, sensation denotes the currency with which these bodyworld transactions take place.
At least since Heidegger phenomenology has defended a non-dualist
thesis as it struggles against the prejudices of objectivism and dualism. There
are, of course, countless non-phenomenological precursors to this general
perspective: Parmenides and Anaximander; the atomists Democritus,
Epicurus, Lucretius; Hobbes and Spinoza; Marx and Nietzsche; the
American pragmatists. While the philosophers working on embodied mind
acknowledge and cite from some of these historical resources, the fruits of
their labors are often attributed to the latest research in cognitive science,
cognitive linguistics, or emotion research. This not only obscures the history

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 37

of the problem of embodiment, it also passes over a rich and conflicted


body of literature which has much to contribute to the contemporary
scientific debate. Such methodological decisions tend to reinforce the
view that phenomenology is only valuable as a speculative, or merely
theoretical, supplement to the sciences of the mind and that it lacks rigor
or legitimacy when conducted on its own terms. Thus, Johnson admits that
phenomenology leads us to the primacy of movement, but it alone is not
enough to prove the case. What is required additionally is empirical research
from the cognitive sciences of the embodied mind.38 While I do feel that
phenomenology is best practiced synthetically, that is, in conjunction with
the human and natural sciences, I think we need to be careful not to place it
in the role of sciences servant, or to underestimate/reduce its contribution
to embodiment research.39 Thus the necessity, assumed here, of excavating
the history of French phenomenology to reveal the affinities and disparities
between Levinass and Merleau-Pontys contributions to twentiethcentury philosophy of the body, as well as their relevance to contemporary
embodiment studies. When considered on their own terms I see the
aesthetics of Levinas and Merleau-Ponty as indispensable for reconciling a
pluralistic conception of embodiment, even if ultimately the two thinkers
hold incompatible metaphysical positions.
A promising route opened up by the corporeal turn in philosophy
offers the chance to rethink concepts that have been criticized right out
of theoretical discourse. One of these concepts is sensation. Sensation is
a concept with a confused history and a shifting, equivocal identity.40 It is
often conflated with or subsumed by perception, as exemplified in the term
sense-perception. It is often relegated to the realm of internal, mental
states or reduced to physical stimulation. It is a concept that has been left
behind because it belongs to a surpassed ontological and epistemological
model, a simplistic causal theory of perception. The installation of the
body at the center of the theory of subjectivity and the apparent collapse
of the subject-object divide effected by Kant and post-Kantian idealism,
however, has forced us to produce new ontologies and to attend to the
new philosophical problems which result from this shift in perspective.
Therefore, I would like to keep open the following question: What happens
when our bodies interact with their sensory (aesthetic) environment? Entailed in

38 Chapter 1

this question is a series of ontological considerations that bear on the nature,


power, and constitution of the body; the problem of corporeal individuation;
the natural-artificial and human-nonhuman distinctions; the ethics of
intercorporeal interaction; the reality of violence and death; as well as the
problem of how to conceive sensation vis--vis perception and cognition. If
sensation cannot be comprehended adequately by dualism, the possibilities
for revitalizing sensation in the post-dualist landscape are multiple.
Situated at the intersection of the philosophy and science of the body,
the fecundity of embodied mind theories would be enough to warrant a
closer inspection of the history of the problem of the body. At the same
time, given the promise of such research it is important to catalogue the
nuances of the philosophical history of the body, and to raise and respond to
the metaphysical questions it poses for contemporary studies. That is what
this book does.

General Thesis
Phenomenology provides numerous resources for addressing the problem of
sensation and for thinking through its place in corporeal ontology. Indeed,
sensation constitutes the material basis of this ontology. The narrative I
will weave about sensation tells how the return of the body has enabled the
retrieval of sensation as a philosophically rich concept. Claiming Levinas
and Merleau-Ponty as allies, I defend the thesis that sensation forms the
basis of our intentional and intercorporeal experience. It immanently orients
and integrates our bodies. It is pre-perceptual, pre-conceptual, and prepersonal, and its diachrony introduces a fundamental instability into the
world of perception.
Phenomenology relies on a certain distance between perceiver and
perceived, a distance which posits phenomena as the objects intended by
subjects. Consciousness, for phenomenology, is always already polarized
in this way; it is the point of departure for any phenomenological analysis.
But if the body is constituted immanently, which is to say, generated by
the material world, then the polarization of consciousness must itself be
explained. When and how is the gap between subject and object introduced,
ontologically speaking? Phenomenology does not ask this question. The
primary relation between body and world maintained by phenomenology

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 39

becomes methodologically problematic for phenomenology as such, to


explain. Without the distance afforded by intentionality, which opens up
and sutures the gap between perceiver and perceived, it is impossible for
sensory phenomena to be apprehended as proper objects of intuition.
Given the radical immanence of sensation, I contend that it never
enters, as it were, the intentional gap, and therefore evades any possible
phenomenological intuition.
Sensation lacks the transcendence necessary for the phenomenological
observer to figure it against a background; it thus never rises, as such, to
the level of explicit attention. As soon as it does it becomes perception,
an afterimage of itself. Sensations contours are never entirely defined or
apparent; sensations transpire as non-phenomenal/non-intentional events.
This notion contests Merleau-Pontys crucial thesis that a figure on a
background is the simplest sense-given [la donne sensible] available to
us.41 Against his thesis I maintain that sensation makes sense (sens) and
gives direction (sens) to our bodies at a pre-intentional level. To make good
on this counter-claim and to unpack the dimensions of sensation, my view
of embodiment synthesizes phenomenological and non-phenomenological
perspectives that yield a metaphysical realism about sensation. This synthetic
view impels us to build an ethics and politics that cultivate our aesthetic
environment in enabling and affirmative ways.

Kants Aesthetics and Critique of Sensibility


For historical context it is instructive to start with the Kantian legacy
that remains so powerful in contemporary philosophy. Kant carries out
an analysis of the aesthetic capacity of the subject in the early parts of the
Critique of Pure Reason. His analysis marks a turning point in the history
of the concept of sensation and exemplifies an attitude which still holds
considerable influence today. To summarize Kants impact it is fair to say
that after him the legitimacy of sensationas a unit of experiencebecomes
suspect; today it is permissible to lay claim to perceptions (composed,
understood sensations), but sensations themselves are relegated to an
amorphous, inaccessible, and ultimately unspeakable ontological plane that
is never accessed by perception or cognition. Kant cannot afford to discard
sensation completely, however, or else he would run the double risk of (1)

40 Chapter 1

succumbing to the absolute and subjective idealisms he argues against and


(2) admitting that our representations correspond to nothing that actually
presents itself to us.
The Transcendental Aesthetic of the Critique of Pure Reason lays out
both the a priori and empirical components of sensibility. It radically claims
that space and time, the so-called pure forms of intuition, are contributed
to experience by the subject, they are not objective realities as in Newtons
model. It also claims that the content of our intuitions, sensation, is
provided by the objects we directly intuit in the world. In this respect Kant is
an externalist about sensation. In his account of the subject-object relation,
as well as his understanding of the subject as agent of thought and action,
Kant is Cartesian in spirit; but he decisively advances beyond the Cartesian
view by endowing the subject with the power to constitute the form of
its world. Following Kant, Hegel deploys a brand of phenomenology that
criticizes Kants residual dualism, but Hegel also sacrifices the autonomy of
objects along with the reality of sensations.
What is missing in all three of these views (Descartes, Kant, Hegel) is
the practical or embodied dimension of sensation, or affirmation that it
is sensation that delivers the materiality of the world to sensibility. Such
affirmation can be found in the ancient atomists as well as Aristotle and
later empiricists. It seems that Kant and Hegel, and to a lesser degree
Descartes, are concerned only with the epistemological or logical value of
sensation, a fact which leads them to minimize the ontological consequences
of the sensory encounter that takes place between the world and the body
of the observer.42 Put otherwise, what they lack is a sense of the volatility
attending sensibility and its function as immanent interface between sensing
subject and aesthetic environment. A brief look at Kants Transcendental
Aesthetic in the first Critique reveals a failure to acknowledge the potential
ontological disruption or diachrony harbored by sensibility. Davide Panagia
aptly reminds us, however, that the immediacy of aesthetic experience
(i.e., sensation) in Kants third Critique ungrounds our subjectivity. But
Panagia explicitly means the subject as an agent of interestedness, judgment,
and classification. Thus, what is ungrounded by sensation is the control the
subject wields over the sensible, not the subject itself.43 Entailed in Kants
oversight is the question of the legitimacy of his epistemological claim

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 41

that sensory content is given unsynthesized by objects, that an objects


qualitative unity is the product of subjective synthesis. Interrogating
Kant on this point provides a bridge to the tacit idealism of Husserls
phenomenology, against which both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas launch
their philosophical programs.
The Copernican revolution effected by Kants Critique of Pure Reason
ripples throughout contemporary philosophy. Its impact on modern and
postmodern European philosophy, that is, the continental tradition, is
nothing short of foundational. Indeed, it is not inaccurate to cite the
Critical philosophy of Kant as the very origin of continental philosophy.44
Given Kants general importance in this history and his influence on the
phenomenological movement in particular, it is necessary to delineate a
few key points contained in his view. I will focus exclusively here on his
view of sensation and his theory of sensibility since these are the theoretical
objects under immediate consideration. This will enable us to draw a parallel
between Kant and Husserl in order to connect the Kantian revolution, or
what might be called the institution of constructivist epistemology,45 to the
institution of phenomenology.
Much contemporary philosophy regards Kants suturing together
of subject and object as nearly incontestable. Subject and object are
codependent terms; their real distinction has collapsed. Against this claim
I submit evidence that subjects and objects retain a kind of autonomy even
if this autonomy is always caught up in relations. This is an idea that both
Kant and I endorse, but there is evidence in Kants own texts to suggest
that his endorsement is not consistent with his constructivism, but akin
to a metaphysical breach of his critical method. The burden falls on me to
unpack this allegation.
The power and impact of Kants irrevocable fusion of subject and object
institutes our contemporary episteme, the era of what Quentin Meillassoux
calls correlationism. Correlationism is shorthand for the entrenched postcritical viewpoint which consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible
to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one
another. On this account, it may be legitimate to speculate about objects
in themselves, but it is impossible to either think or know them. This view
pervades so much philosophy after Kant that Meillassoux is compelled to

42 Chapter 1

conclude that the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to
be that of correlation. Meillassoux continues:
By correlation we mean the idea according to which we only
ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being,
and never to either term considered apart from the other. We
will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which
maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so
defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every
philosophy which disavows nave realism has become a variant
of correlationism.46
Phenomenology, as the philosophy/science which studies phenomena
as they appear to consciousness, is by definition correlationism. One might
even say that the subject-object correlation is the proper object of
phenomenological analysis. This does not mean, however, that everything
a phenomenologist writes reinforces or supports correlationism. I will try
to make the correlationism of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas clear, as well as
highlight the points at which their philosophies contest the primacy of the
correlation. The remarkable tenacity of correlationism poses an obstacle to
any metaphysical realism, including the one I espouse here. Constructivism
is usually the default position of contemporary philosophy; its truth seems
uncontestable.
Kants revolutionary position holds that the objects of perception
receive their form from, and so must conform to, our cognition of them.
Cognition does not conform to objects. This view takes root, as noted, in the
Transcendental Aesthetic of the first Critique.47 Kant is concerned there not
with a theory of the beautiful or a philosophy of art, but with the subjects
capacity to receive sensory input from the external world. Sensibility is
our capacity to be affected by objects; it is how objects are given to us.48
He offers a theory of sensibility which is formulated in part as a response
to classical empiricist accounts of sense experience, particularly those of
the British empiricists, Hume and Hutcheson, for example. Kant agrees
with the empiricists that cognition must begin with the experience of some
object, but he contests the claim that all our knowledge is built up from
what is given empirically, that is, from sensations. There can be no doubt
that all our cognition begins with experience, writes Kant. But, he adds,

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 43

even though all our cognition starts with experience, that does not mean
that all of it arises from experience.49 He makes this distinction to set up
a refutation of empiricism, but also because he understands experience
as a composite phenomenon assembled from impressions received by the
intellect. Once impressions are received the intellect applies concepts,
either subsequently or simultaneously, to produce experience. Outside this
production, which occurs within the subject-object correlation, there is
nothing to experience. Ordinarily we believe the content of experience is
given externally. But, says Kant, long practice has made us attentive to [the
cognitive element of all experience] and skilled in separating it from the
basic material, provided by sense impressions.50 Since experience is always
more than the reception of sensory content, the given is never received in
basic, raw form. That is, sensations are never received as sensations. How
can Kant claim that they are given, then? Or rather, if sensations are always
already worked up by the cognitive apparatus, what apart from linguistic
necessity allows Kant to claim that anything like pure, unsynthesized
sensory content exists at all? His schematic requires the concept of
sensation, or the sensory manifold, to account for the content of experience,
but beyond its basic architectonic value sensation seems to play no formative
role in the constitution of experience. Nor does it have any influence on our
capacity to constitute experience.
The empiricist position involves what Merleau-Ponty calls the prejudice
of the objective world. The Phenomenology of Perception thoroughly criticizes
and opposes this prejudice with a non-Kantian alternative which maintains
that knowledge of the world arises out of firsthand acquaintance with
objects in themselves. Kant maintains that there is an objective (noumenal)
world in itself beyond the (phenomenal) reach of perception, but that
this noumenal world is unknowable. Merleau-Ponty eschews the notion
of an objective realm that exists apart from the phenomenal, in favor of
a theory which posits that the objects we perceive just are the objects of
the noumenal world. These objects are constituted and individuated in
perception, our only means of knowing them. He follows Kant to a degree,
then, but transfers the constitutive power of Kants transcendental subject
to the bodys capacity for practical synthesis. Merleau-Ponty writes, It
is not through an intellectual synthesis which would freely posit the total

44 Chapter 1

object that I am led from what is given to what is not actually given; that
I am given, together with the visible sides of the object, the invisible sides
as well. It is, rather, a kind of practical synthesis.51 The act of synthesis,
or the individuation of objects, is said to occur through the bodys
commerce with things (Merleau-Ponty) rather than in the understanding
or imagination (Kant).52 For both thinkers, however, it is sense impressions
that are purportedly synthesized. To see why this is true of MerleauPonty, who is often read as championing the priority of objects over sense
impressions, we will eventually have to look closely at his concept of sense
experience (sentir).
Kants epistemological treatment of sensation has a clear ontological
significance which contrasts with the view that sensations are purely internal
events. Sensation denotes the material to be processed into experience by
the understanding, and in this respect it is external or objective content.
They are what instigate the production of experience. Kant writes: The
effect of an object on our capacity for [re]presentation, insofar as we are
affected by the object, is sensation.53 The material of sensation is provided
to the subject from outside; it emanates from the objects which reside in the
noumenal realm, the things in themselves. But Kants epistemology, as is
well known, has an uneasy time establishing the ontological divide between
subjective and objective, phenomenon and noumenon, nor can he justify
any causal interaction between these pairs.54 His constructivism should
prohibit any reference to things in themselves, as things are only knowable
through phenomenal experience understood in a composite sense of the
following sort:
Sensations + Concepts = Experience
This makes Kants account of the givenness of sensation either speculative
fantasy (something the Critical project aims to quell) or what Hegel calls a
formal, lifeless schema.55 In either case, Kant undermines the volatility of
sensation by situating it in a space inaccessible to the cognitive machinery of
the transcendental subjectthe noumenal. This is effectively what Samuel
Todes argues in his somewhat neglected Body and World when he advances
the thesis that Kant imaginizes perception and the ego and thereby
underplays the materiality of subjectivity.56 Todess argument assembles

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 45

roughly phenomenological evidence against Kant that is meant to show


that the subject is not a disembodied, transcendental synthesizer of sensory
content, but is itself a product of that content. Todess thesis is worth
revitalizing.
Todes argues for a pre-Kantian thesis, but from a post-Kantian/
phenomenological perspective. Against the Copernican revolution he
reasserts the idea that knowledge must conform to objects; more than
that, he contends that the subject itself must also conform.57 This is a
consequence of the fact that perception is fundamentally practical, while
only secondarily conceptual or imaginative. On our view, writes Todes,
imagination presupposes practical perception because we must first
become somebody by practical experience in the given world, before we can
achieve self-expression and self-discovery by making a world of our own.58
Our worldly productions, whether intellectual or material, are initiated in
response to the world as it is found and as it demands to be handled. It is
in the handling that we come know that this world is something other than
what we make it.
Kant believes that he can ascertain from experience some a priori
knowledge of the world, such as the pure forms of intuition: space and time.
But a priori knowledge cannot guarantee that any content exists outside
of experience and its transcendental conditions, only that when content
is represented the form of its presentation is contributed by the subject.
Consequently, it becomes difficult to explain how the subject could come
into contact with, let alone find itself shaped by, truly autonomous objects
or sensory content. For Todes, it is in the practical field of perception where
objects await our interaction, yet even this lends no certainty about the
reality of objects.59 The phenomenal evidence of the perceptual field, writes
Todes, determines the incorrigible existence of any given object by way of
some effective response to that object, and culminates by determining it as
circumstantially outside us. This response, however, determines not merely
the perceptual object upon which it is directed, but also the percipient
from which it issues.60 Only the dialogical interaction that occurs between
the body and objects, so central to Merleau-Pontys phenomenology of
perception, can evince the material existence of these two terms. For Todes
as much as Merleau-Ponty this dialogism gives the subject and object

46 Chapter 1

their particular form. It is not the spontaneous synthesis of the ego which
performs this feat, it is the responsiveness of the active body with all its
specific determinations: upright posture,61 front-back asymmetry,62 physical
disability, gravitational attunement, institutional orientation, and so forth.
This may not be enough to establish the autonomous reality of things, but
it shifts attention away from the idea that space, time, and object-unity are
products of the mind. The body is instead brought into focus, specifically as
dependent upon what is outside it.
Todes raises a now common criticism of the Kantian subject when he
claims that Kant has no sense of how practice makes the practitioner.63 For
Kant, the world is but a reflection of our constitutive (imaginative, cognitive)
capacities and we come to know ourselves only by first generating this world
in experience. This puts him in the difficult position of accounting for how
the material world is capable of shaping us at the most fundamental level.
Against Kant, Todes aligns himself with many contemporary exponents of
embodiment, both phenomenological and naturalist, who insist that subjects
are produced as they explore and interact bodily with their environment,
not before.64
It is possible to argue that Kant does not completely absent the body
from his account of subjectivity. Angelica Nuzzo maintains that the body is
far from missing in Kants equation. If we look to the Critique of Judgment,
for instance, we see the embodied dimension of sensibility highlighted by
Kant. The experience of pleasure and displeasure in the face of aesthetic
phenomena, notes Nuzzo, allow us to feel ourselves a part of living (i.e.,
sensible) nature.65 This pivotal feeling is basically corporeal. She concludes
that [Kants] general aim is to attribute to human sensibility a new
central place in philosophy, thereby steering the philosophical focus from
the metaphysics of a disembodied soul to the inquiry into an embodied
mind. In sum, Kants modern view of sensibility is broad enough to
encompass the entire realm of the sensual: affections, intuition, sensation,
feeling, and imagination.66
In her book Ideal Embodiment Nuzzo contends that Kants theory
of sensibility is actually a theory of embodied sensibility and that
transcendentally, the knowing subject of Kants epistemology, the moral
agent of his pure ethics, and the evaluating subject of his aesthetic theory

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 47

of judgment is a rational embodied being.67 Specifically, for Kant, the


transcendental field is governed by a left/right asymmetry that corresponds
to the asymmetry of our hands, and thus the a priori form of space (the
formal aspect of sensible intuition) has the comportment of the body
built right into it.68 More than an empirical fact, this asymmetry is a
transcendental condition of any possible experience.
Nuzzo gives plenty of evidence for the embodied dimension of Kants
transcendental sensibility in her analysis of his aesthetic theory.69 She
shows that Kants innovative moment arrives when he makes the body
a transcendental condition for aesthetics, a condition which is formal
and ideal, but at the same time corporeal.70 We find Levinas eventually
pursuing something analogous but less formal. For Kant, sensibility is
the active reception of objects given and is responsible for the fact that
we are able to confront the reality of given objects.71 But sensibilitys
activity extends further, since it also produces representations of objects
and does so immediately, unlike thought, which is always mediated by
sensibility. Sensibility guarantees that sensations received are never without
form. Since Kant distinguishes between intuition and sensation he can
designate intuitions as having objective content while assigning sensation
a representational/subjective role as the formal effect of objects on our
sensibility.
Nuzzos attempt to display the embodied element of Kantian cognition
is emblematic of the broader concern with embodiment in contemporary
philosophy. One of a plethora of recent attempts to retrieve the body, it
testifies to the inadequacy of the now-familiar narrative which laments
the Western philosophical traditions neglect of the body. I hesitate to
contest Nuzzos reading of Kant because she provides a compelling
reading of Kants aesthetics. Indeed, I do not think we are forced to either
acknowledge the body in Kant or lament its absence. The question of
Kantian embodiment is instead a matter of degree. Despite the embodied
elements of Kantian cognition pinpointed by Nuzzo, the receptive function
of sensibility must remain subservient to sensibilitys formal aspect, as well
as the activity of the understanding, in his philosophy. Consequently, Kant
provides us with an account of sensing that tames sensation by reducing it
to a logical placeholder in his diagram of aesthetic experience.72 In other

48 Chapter 1

words, sensations are inferred from experience, not encountered in it. They
can be conceived, but not perceived.
The question remains: How does the transcendental ego/body make
contact with the material world? Looking at the first Critique, it would have
to be through sensibility, since all rational judgment must pass through
the senses. We have already seen, however, the problem with considering
objects and sensations as given corporeally on the Kantian model. Kant
distinguishes between intuition and sensation. Whereas sensation is simply
empirical, or objectively given, intuition is simultaneously transcendental
and empirical. Since we only ever intuit the appearance of objects, and
therefore apprehend objects only through an a priori formality that provides
them with the space and time in which they reside, we are prevented from
claiming that sensation actually comes from somewhere, let alone that it is
given materially. In other words, if sensations come from objects, but these
objects cannot exist without the spatiotemporal conditions contributed by
the subject, then objects cannot be an external source of sensations.
The tension I am trying to bring into relief is roughly this. Kant wants
to give sensation a non-ideal source, namely, the objects of experience.
This is to avoid the subjectivist view that when we sense, we only ever sense
our own ideas or ideal content. But the spatiotemporal conditions of these
objects are provided by the subject. So, if we subtract these conditions, what
is left are pure sensory qualities without spatial or temporal coordinates,
something difficult to imagine as anything other than a pure abstraction. If
Kants epistemology cannot actually establish that sensation has a material
reality, this means that sensation, on his view, cannot be objectively given to
sensibility, cannot instigate sensing, and cannot give form to the subject.
While the first Critique excludes sensation from the transcendental to
affirm its non-ideal materiality, the third Critique opens up the embodied
dimension of sensibility through an analysis of the feelings of pleasure
and displeasure.73 His analysis identifies the conditionaffective (nonconceptual) intuitionthat makes it possible for us to feel our participation
in sensible nature. Despite Kants discussion of affective intuition, I do not
think he [strengthens] the connection between sensation and feeling at the
ontological level, as Nuzzo suggests.74 Read alongside the Critique of Pure
Reason the recasting of sensibility in the Critique of Judgment does not quite

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 49

resolve the problem of how to either establish or bridge the gap between
the supposedly objective source of sensation and the subjective feeling of
pleasure or displeasure. How can we be confident that our pleasurable
aesthetic experience is a pleasure taken in something that is other than
our own representation? Are we permitted on Kants view to hold that
aesthetic pleasure, which is an embodied response to aesthetic phenomena,
is brought about by sensibilitys reception of real sensations from real
objects? If it is problematic to claim that sensibility actually receives
material sensations from outside itself, it is problematic to claim that the
corporeality of pleasure actually results from the corporeality of sensation.
Without establishing the corporeality of sensation it is difficult to conceive
aesthetic experience as an embodied, not just intellectual, response. What
prevents Kant from achieving this, I suggest, is a wavering commitment
to correlationism. In other words, his critical project is at once committed
to the primacy of the subject-object correlation, but he nevertheless wants
to claim that objects and subjects and objects do enjoy some kind of
independence from each other. The independence claim finds little if any
support in Kants Critique, however.
Rather than reaching a decisive verdict I simply want to reiterate that
Kant has effectively, and quite influentially, tamed the effects of sensation by
insulating the transcendental subject from the material content of cognition.
Accordingly, Kants subject-object dualism, despite its tensions, prohibits
sensation from actively constituting the subject. Now, I would not dispute
that Kant has a transcendental view of embodiment, for Nuzzo gives a
persuasive account. It fails to reunite the body of the subject to the material
world, however, and this is because her argument explicitly resists such
a reunion. As a result, the Kantian subjects identity remains beyond the
reach of other bodies and material objects. Other bodies, moreover, must
always be regarded as themselves constituted by the subjects sensibility
and understanding. This has two ontological and practical implications
that call for response. First, it is impossible for the subjects identity to
be either formed or deformed by sensation. Second, the otherness of
the material environment is reduced to the sameness of the subjects
representational capacity.

50 Chapter 1

Taming Sensation With Hegel and Husserl


Kants pacification of sensation is ramified in Hegels phenomenology. In the
Sense-Certainty section of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel addresses
the problem of the given by rejecting the existence of a noumenal realm
that provides the sensory input for cognition to process into workable
knowledge. Hegels refusal to infer the existence of pure sensory content
eliminates the objectivity of sensation altogether, for it situates this content
exclusively in subjective representations. This is because there is nowhere
else to put it. In a sense, the symbiotic relation of subject and object
disappears for Hegel because the object has become a conceptan evershifting and elusive concept, but a concept nonetheless. Since, for Hegel,
the world is just the phenomenal appearance of human conceptuality, the
sensory material of intuition qua non-ideal material becomes superfluous for
thought. The subject-world correlation retains its primacy, with the result
that the Hegelian object, more severely than the Kantian, is evacuated of
its autonomy.
Hegel sees sensation as a prejudicial empiricist concept, one we use to
explain the phenomena of experience without really comprehending the
rationality of these phenomena. Sensation only makes sense as a concept
in one of the infinite succession of appearances that make up the history
of spirit. These appearances, whose shape derives from the conceptual
framework used to make sense of phenomena are, as conceptual, presented
to consciousness by consciousness.75 Hegels phenomenology tracks the
transformation and interplay between these shapes. In the process, the
sensible world becomes a fable for Hegel. The Phenomenology quickly
sublates the empiricist prejudice of sense-certainty in its dialectic, replacing
it with perception as a more advanced order of rationality. What the
empiricist believes to be the direct apprehension of a singular sensory object
reveals its truth as the comprehension of an object endowed with universal
qualities: So it is in fact the universal that is the true [content] of sensecertainty, Hegel says.76 I have this certainty through something else, viz.
the thing; and it, similarly, is in sense-certainty through something else, viz.
through the I.77 In Hegel the mediation of the world by the mind becomes
a total mediation, further ensuring that the alterity and foreignness of the
world can always be recuperated by the dialectic. Hegel foreshadows that,

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 51

In pressing forward to its true existence, consciousness will arrive at a


point at which it gets rid of its semblance of being burdened with something
alien, with what is only for it, and some sort of other, at a point where
appearance becomes identical with essence, so that its exposition will
coincide at just this point with the authentic Science of Spirit.78
Hegels discontent with the formalism of Kants portrait of cognition
induces him to put flesh on Kants architectonic.79 Hegels gripe is
basically existentialist in character, in that he thinks that Kant is trying to
understand experience before actually experiencing something.80 This is
why he begins the Phenomenology with sense experience, a move equivalent
to jumping right into the stream of consciousness and letting oneself get
tossed around in its waves, rather than trying to deduce the fluid dynamics
of these waves from the shore. But it is also telling that he regards sense
experience as something already shot through with universals, and so
neither formless nor immediate at all. The stream of consciousness is, in
effect, shown to be given through perception, not sensation. Such a tactic
is standard not only for Hegels phenomenology, but also for Husserl and
his followers. Phenomenology of all stripes begins from the premise that we
do not first experience sense impressions, formless qualities, but perceptual
objects. The difference is that Hegel does not allow for the transcendence
of the object; the object is a concept, not a substance existing in the
material world. If anything, its transcendence is always a transcendence in
immanence,81 a notion endorsed by both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.82
Absolute transcendence of the object is prohibited by the methodological
correlationism of all three thinkers. Just as in Kant, the form of the Hegelian
object is the product of the conscious subject. But unlike Kant, this object
has no other truth than the one bestowed upon it by the conceptual eye/I of
the observer.83
Hegels critique of Kants ontological dualism targets sensation as a
source of knowledge, specifically, as the origin of our representations. This
is a reformulation of the Cartesian criticism of empiricism, demonstrated
by the wax example in the Meditations, where Descartes shows that
what we actually perceive in an object as it undergoes myriad qualitative
changes is nothing sensiblewhich would only lead to skepticismbut
an idea or representation. Hegels critique of sensation goes further than

52 Chapter 1

Cartesian skepticism, however. It leads to the abandonment of the concept


of sensation as such. Although necessary to recount the odyssey of spirit,
sensation is just a rudimentary form of experience that bears no certain
knowledge and can easily be seen as simply prejudicial.
If we turn aside from Hegels explicitly epistemological criticism,
however, it becomes possible to see sensation as something other than a
means to certainty. What we find in the empiricists, as well as Kant, is the
idea that sensation is the instigator of experience. As such it possesses a
certain kind of agency, one that eludes the subjects power of representation
and which occasionally threatens its representational capacity. This sense of
sensation vanishes in the Hegelian dialectic, but here we are precisely trying
to recover it.
The material dimension of sensation drops out of Hegels
phenomenology, but not the post-Hegelian phenomenologies of the
twentieth century, which uncover a different ontology of sensation. In his
account of subjectivity, Levinas, for instance, revives the affective aspect of
embodiment and champions sensation as a kind of element that nourishes
the life of the body. Sensation also eludes and disrupts any attempt to
fix it in a system of representation. There is nothing like this in Hegelian
phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty, like Levinas, is not interested in working
through the old epistemological debate. He instead constructs a new
framework for thinking the correlation of body and world, but one which
retains a vestige of the materiality of sensation. Neither Merleau-Pontys nor
Levinass conception of sensation can be circumscribed by older models,
but their novel character is, I think, most striking when refracted through
those models.84
At stake when breaking with the idealist model that culminates in Hegel
is not only an embodied conception of the subject, but also a rehabilitation
of the concept of sensation and a practical philosophy that is founded in the
aesthetic life of the body, not rooted at the intellectual level, like the Kantian
imperative. An embodied imperative issues from the site where bodies
interact with other bodies, where bodily transactions, yields, absorptions,
resistances, and collisions occur. This is the place where sensations give and
receive their form. Sensation is at the heart of all encounters, constituting
and reconstituting the bodies involved. The concept of plasticity, developed

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 53

as much by the American pragmatists as Catherine Malabou, will be the key


to understanding this process.
Before turning to his French descendants, it is necessary to note the
influence of the German idealists on Husserls phenomenology. MerleauPonty and Levinas explicitly resist this aspect of Husserls heritage. A
common target is his sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, idealism,
which harbors important remnants of both Kant and Hegel. Those who
would defend Husserl against this charge always seem to be fighting an
uphill battle. This is because, as Tom Rockmore has shown, Husserls
position is in constant dialogue with Kants critical philosophy, to which
he comes increasingly closer through the evolution of this position from
descriptive phenomenology to transcendental idealism.85 The call back to
the things themselves has a Kantian ring to it, but for Husserl it is actually
more like an Hegelian principle: to return not to mind-independent objects,
but to the immediate phenomena of perceptual experience; proceed with
reflection from there, without prejudging the matter at hand.86 Despite
his allegiance to the phenomena as such, however, Husserl retains a basic
dualism that aligns him with Kant. Mark Rowlands frames the position,
accurately I think, in these terms:
Whereas for Kant, phenomena, experienceable things, are
ultimately grounded in a noumenal reality, a reality of nonexperienceable things, Husserl denies that phenomena require
such grounding. There may or may not exist a transcendent,
noumenal world, but if there is one we can neither know nor
say anything at all about it. The physical world of which we
can speak is not a transcendent world but one that must be
understood in terms of actual and possible experiences. As
such, it cannot exist independently of consciousness.87
The famous bracketing of the natural attitude which initiates the
phenomenological method remains neutral about the things themselves and
focuses the phenomenologists attention solely on the given as it is given.88
This means that Husserlin a gesture of realist solidarity does not
discard the thing in itself, like Hegel, but, as a committed phenomenologist
and with more restraint than Kant, refuses to speak about it. Only natural
scientists and ordinary folks believe that when they talk about things

54 Chapter 1

they talk about the things themselves. But such talk is suspended by the
phenomenological reduction, which drives a wedge between things in
themselves and what is really given in the phenomenological elements of
representations.89 Without fully rejecting their reality, Husserl leaves the
things in themselves to the empirical investigators, and turns his attention to
intentional objects, the proper focus of phenomenological epistemology.
The given for Husserl, then, is not what comes from outside us.
It is what is presented to intentional consciousness within the subjectobject correlation. This includes the sensory material which, for Kant,
remains a formal abstraction about the external world. So, on the one
hand, Husserl tacitly retains the noumenon-phenomenon duality, but in a
neutralized form, while at the same time situating the origin of the given
in consciousness, and thereby forging another tacit alliance with objective
idealism. This is the case in Ideas I and Cartesian Meditations, although
the story is complicated by Husserls turn to the body in Ideas II. As for
objects and their sensible features, Logical Investigations complicates the
matter further by offering a version of the sensible that is at odds with the
idealism of Ideas I.
We saw that Kants relegation of the material of sensation to the
noumenal realm, oddly enough, disqualified him from claiming its
objectivity. Consequently, his dualism has the effect of immunizing the
subject from the instigation of sensation. Husserls idealism, at least in Ideas
I, has a similar effect: he once again domesticates sensation and mitigates its
material dimension by subjectivizing it.90 Like Kant and Hegel before him,
he sees the subject as animating sensory content,91 whereas I would argue,
alongside Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, that it is sensory content (sensations)
that animates us. We might pose this point of contrast in terms of what
could be called the principle of animation: against the view which holds
that the principle of animation is ideal or mental I offer the view that the
principle of animation originates in the material environment, which means
that subjects are constituted, practitioners are made, as corporeal events.
Phenomenological idealism keeps the materiality of sensation at a distance,
protects the subject from what would threaten its transcendental privileges.
It conceives sensibility too intellectually and, consequently, the corporeal
aspect of experience is drastically compromised.

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 55

It is not easy to figure out the sensory/material or so-called hyletic


layer in Husserls image of consciousness. As James Dodd has noted, it is
perhaps the most volatile concept in [Husserls] corpus.92 Ideas I explains
that the notion of a hyletic layer is meant to replace what he called primary
contents in Logical Investigations. Husserl describes primary contents as
what would be the contents of external sensibility, although he is quick
to point out that this does not refer to some metaphysical distinction of
outward and inward. At the level of phenomenological representation,
then, these primary contents are the intuited ground upon which reflection
is founded.93 They include all the sensory content given in concrete
experience, such as color and texture as well as the sensile impressions
of pleasure, pain, tickling, etc.94 Primary contents no longer works as a
concept in Ideas I so Husserl decides there to speak of hyle instead. In
both cases Husserl is reconstituting what would otherwise be referred to
as sensation: sensation is hyle, that is, matter waiting to be charged with
animating sense, awaiting an apprehension that will give it meaning.95
The shift to the language of hyle allows him to emphasize the fact that the
sensuous stuff of consciousness is immanent to, not independent of,
consciousness.
Ideas I operates with a hylomorphism roughly Kantian in structure: what
Husserl calls hyletic data are analogous to the first Critiques sensory given.96
Intentional acts give form to this data in the same way that the forms of
intuition operate for Kant, even though Husserl refuses to proclaim that
hyletic data are subject to an animating synthesis and even questions
whether they play a constitutive role in intentionality.97 The objectivity of
the hyletic layer must be, as in Kant, inferred from perception: it is never
experienced in its pure form or given to consciousness, since it is always
filtered and formed by intentionality. Dodd even suggests that Husserls
idealism is stronger than Kants: Husserls strategy is to claim that the
sources of knowledge are not hidden, but are only within an experience
that itself is a unity given in reflectionthis is against Kant.98 The inference
to a mind-independent hyle is without phenomenological confirmation; it
is without phenomenological evidence. Just as in Hegel and Merleau-Ponty,
perception is the most basic mode of access to the given: The object-giving
(or dator) intuition of the first, natural sphere of knowledge and of all

56 Chapter 1

its sciences is natural experience, and the primordial dator experience is


perception in the ordinary sense of the term, writes Husserl.99 Nevertheless,
hyle serves as the ground of constitutive (noetic) acts of consciousness.
Husserl locates hyle in something posited as non-subjective, the noematic
nucleus (object essence), which provides the ideal limit of phenomenological
intuition. The noematic nucleus is what persists throughout all of the
adumbrations of any given intentional object.100 It is, on Husserls view,
not the product of subjective constitution, but what is revealed through
phenomenological intuition. Its role is merely formal, simply necessary to
explain the intentional objects identity and the source of sensory intuition.
The fact remains that for Husserl every object, even the objective
noematic nucleus, is a correlate of consciousness.101
A tension similar to the one we noted in Kant is now apparent. If
the hyletic layer is situated on the side of the subject, a layer of human
consciousness, but is supposed to provide the non-subjective, non-ideal
ground of noetic acts, what are we to make of the ontological status of the
hyletic layer? Husserl is forced to postulate the reality of a non-intentional
source of hyletic material in order to avoid idealism, but this can only
occur through a betrayal of his allegiance to the evidence of the given (the
principle of principles). A betrayal of this sort would carry him into the
kind of realist metaphysics phenomenology wishes to suspend, but at the
cost of his methods integrity.
Husserl distinguishes sensibility from the hyle which functions as
the material basis of meaning-giving acts of consciousness.102 He further
distinguishes sensibility and hyle from the animating acts of consciousness,
or noeses. He regards the hyletic layer, both formally and functionally, as
objective while designating the phenomenal data of sensibility as the
subjective manifestation of hyletic material. He writes:
Both [hyle and sensibility] together compelled the old transfer
of the originally narrower meaning of sensibility to the spheres
of sentiment and will, to the intentional experiences, namely,
in which sensory data of the spheres here indicated play their
part as functioning materials.103
He concludes that we need a new term which shall express the whole
group through its unity of function and its contrast with the formative

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 57

characters. This new term is hyle, and it circumscribes both


the affective and sensuous material that is formed by intentional acts
and instilled with meaning by consciousness.104 The formative acts of
consciousness are designated as psychical in order to distinguish
them from the corporeal and sensory,105 but Husserl also emphasizes in
response to Brentanos psychologism that both the noetic (Brentanos
psychical) and the material (Brentanos physical) fall within the
stream of phenomenological being.106 In short, both the matter and form of
perception are located fully within consciousness. Sensation is stripped of its
non-ideal, objective dimension.107
Because Ideas I is primarily concerned with the correlation of intentional
acts and intentional objects, insofar as this correlation can be given a
transcendental sense, the investigation of sensory material for its own sake
remains subordinate to the project of transcendental phenomenology. In
Husserls words, an engagement with sensory material as such, or a pure
hyletics, wins significance from the fact that it furnishes a woof that can
enter into the intentional tissue, material that can enter into intentional
formations.108 Ideas I is then not the best place to find Husserl engaged
with the corporeality of sensation, even if it is representative of his nascent
philosophical perspective. It is better to look at Ideas II, where sensation
(Empfindung) is dealt with explicitly with respect to the body and where
the hylomorphic structure of consciousnesswhich regards sensation as
amorphous and innocuousis contested.109
Since Merleau-Pontys notion of the lived body (corps propre) is an
extension of Husserls lived body (Leib) in Ideas II, it suffices to indicate
here that Husserls account of sensation in this text is quite different than
the theory of hyle in Ideas I or primary contents in Logical Investigations. As
Alia Al-Saji reads it, the second book of Ideas shows Husserl focusing on
the way the lived Body is constituted through the localization of sensings
[Empfindnisse], i.e., the particular lived spatiality of the Body.110 This is
the prototypical concept of sensation I will try to elicit from the works of
Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, as well as defend as the concept most faithful
to the aesthetic life of our bodies. It is one which attends to the affective
and kinaesthetic life of the body and, perhaps most importantly, reveals the
materiality of sensation and the subjects reliance on this materiality.111

58 Chapter 1

Sense Data and the Aesthetics of Embodiment


We have sketched some of the problematic aspects of the idealist and/or
constructivist treatment of sensation, focusing specifically on where it locates
sensation vis--vis the subject. In the case of Kant, sensation is found on
the far side of cognition among the things in themselves. For the Husserl of
Ideas I, sensation as hyle appears within consciousness, and merely functions
as the external layer of intentional acts. In both cases, sensation is cut off
from the body, allowed to neither enable nor threaten the constitution of the
subject as such. By contrast, classical analytic philosophers sympathetic to
empirical realism, Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer, for example, often speak
of sensations (as opposed to sense data) as internal or subjective signs for
something objectively given. Here is Russell: Let us give the name sensedata to the things that are immediately known in sensation, like color,
texture, and so on. We shall give the name sensation to the experience of
being immediately aware of these things.112 With this distinction Russell
draws the conclusion that we can infer the existence of objects which
might cause our sensations, but these do not appear directly to the mind.
Russell continues:
Thus the various sensations due to various pressures or
various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly
any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of
some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is
not actually apparent in any of them.113
This view of sensation is articulated within a realist ontology that posits
discrete, fully formed objects existing outside the mind. Epistemologically
speaking, these objects are made known to us through the sense data they
transmit to consciousness. The process of perceiving and knowing thus
begins in the object. Our minds subsequently reconstitute this data into
the objects we perceive as outside us. When our reconstitutions correspond
to the object in itself, we can claim knowledge of the object as it really is.
Merleau-Ponty thoroughly criticizes this model under the name of the
constancy hypothesis (PP 7-12/13-19) and in so doing steps through the
door, opened by Husserls Ideas II, to an embodied view of sensation.114 The

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 59

other trouble with Russells view, and the empiricist view more generally, is
well-documented by the idealist and constructivist response to empiricism.
My sympathy for the empiricist view is greater than Merleau-Pontys.
Despite its epistemological difficulties, the metaphysical realist in me likes
that empiricism affirms the autonomous existence and qualitative unity of
objects. Russells sense data hypothesis, however, is problematic for at least
a couple reasons. I think it is wrong to conceive sensation as internal, or as
some kind of epiphenomenon of the mind. It is more than just a feeling or
the subjective correlate of a physiological stimulus. Sensation provides a
direct link to the world of objects, animals, people, and qualities. It is what
presents objects, and that to which objects respond, whether practically,
intellectually, or aesthetically. The transmission of sensation is, however, a
bidirectional communication and exchange. On this construal sensations
are regarded as external to the mind; however, this exteriority is not the
whole story. If it were, then an unbridgeable ontological chasm would open
between sensing subjects and the sensible world, replacing the equally
objectionable subject-world correlation. There must be some bridge between
external sensory content and sensibility. Sensation is that bridge.
Sensations travel. Every object possesses a unified sensory identity
that can be apprehended or received by other objects. Its identity is
transmittable, which is why it is possible to sense objects. Since sensing
is not the literal consumption of an object, we might say that sensing is
the reception, or taking in, of the objects sensory identity. There must be
some way, then, that the objects qualities are detached and dispatched
to our sensibility. There is, of course, a physical explanation for how this
happens. Instead, what I am interested in exploring is the metaphysical
aspect of sensation, for there are elements of sensation and sensing that
are not accounted for by causal, mechanical, or even phenomenological
models. Consequently, given the metaphysical nature of my project, I
do not offer this text as a contribution to the embodied mind/embodied
cognition literature, nor do I engage that literature at any great length. I do
borrow from it at times. So, while it has much to say about the dynamics of
sensation and perception, my account is philosophical and speculative. This
is why a thorough discussion of the latest cognitive science and embodied
mind research is absent from this book.

60 Chapter 1

Some Theses On Sensation


The empirical realist has no problem positing objects as external to the
mind. This is what realism does. Sensation is another story. In my view,
sensations must be given some external status in order to preserve their
objectivity and to explain their effectiveness on the body. Such objectivity
is required to explain how bodies are responsive to sensations. So, two
points that I take from realism: (1) objects and their qualitative unity
exist independently of human subjects; (2) this objectivism leverages an
externalist view of sensation.115 The idealist critique of objectivism still
holds: if it is the case that we never experience an object in itself, let alone
raw sensory material; and that we can only ever know the world through
the secondary qualities we perceive ( la Berkeley), then talk about
mind-independent reality must be speculative. But it need not be merely
speculative. Speculation becomes necessary to account for how our minds
and bodies are affected by what is othertheir dependence, vulnerability,
activity, and destruction. One could object that this begs the question by
assuming the existence of mind-independent bodies in order to argue for
the reality of mind-independent bodies. On the contrary, if we do not posit
the existence of autonomous bodies it becomes difficult to explain things
like the constitution of the body, its responsive nature, as well as its eventual
disintegration. We are forced to conclude, quite absurdly, that death is not a
real event, but just an event for us.
The constitution of the world may be explicable by transcendental
idealism, but it is difficult to see how such a view can explain the dissolution
of the world. Kant gives us the conditions for the possibility of experience,
but he never gives us the conditions for the impossibility of experience. In
a word, if nothing other than the mind or consciousness or intentional
objects exist, then what delivers violence and death to the subject? The
materiality of the subject, that is, its corporeal engagement with a world of
autonomous bodies, as well as its means of communication with this world,
must be accounted for at both the physical and metaphysical levels. I think
a revitalized realism about sensation, one which risks some speculative
remarks, can do this. As speculative this realism must go beyond the
correlationism of Kantian and post-Kantian critical philosophy as well as
phenomenology.

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 61

We should avoid posing the question of sensation in terms of a false


dichotomy: it is not the case that sensation is either a representational
content, like Husserls hyle, or an amorphous, discrete datum about which
nothing meaningful can be said. Instead, sensation should be seen as a
complex meaningful content composed of no less than six dimensions,
enumerated here as theses to be elaborated throughout the remainder of this
book and expanded in future work.
1. Sensations are objective, real. Sensations belong to independent
bodies, animate as well inanimate,116 and make up the singular qualitative
constitution of these bodies. So, when Locke writes in his Essay that
secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste are nothing in the objects
themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us by their
primary qualities,117 I would insist that this power really does reside in the
objects themselves, specifically as their singular sensory composition and
its attendant effects. This postulate takes root in empiricist anti-substance
theories, including Humes stageless theatre of personal identity and
Berkeleys Lockean definition of the object as a collection of qualities.118
Sensations are effective insofar as they can bring about changes or
engender responses in other bodies. For example, sandpaper can smooth
wood because it has abrasion as a property. Or rather: its abrasive identity
just is its capacity to affect wood abrasively. Similarly, we can enter an
illuminated room because a light bulb or the sun is able to produce
brightness, and a sound wave can shatter a glass because glass has fragility
as a disposition and the sound wave has shattering power.119 Sensations
should not be restricted to their familiar role as qualitative or stimulating
manifestations, for they are virtual capacities inhabiting objects and not mere
potentialities;120 or, if we insist on calling them properties, they must be
conceived as transmittable rather than fixed to the substance in which they
inhere.121 It is not that the carpet is red, but that the carpet can produce red
for color-sensitive bodies.
Throughout this book I will use the terms capacity, disposition, and power
as synonyms that denote a formal structure (or property) of bodies. These
terms denote real properties that entail determinate, although conditional,
effects and/or affects. Dispositions are not merely possible or conditional,
but virtual. They are real, but not actual, as Deleuze says. They exist in

62 Chapter 1

bodies, whether manifested or not. In Stephen Mumfords words, To


ascribe a disposition is to suggest possibilities of behaviour. It is to say that
something could or would happen if the circumstances were right.122 Later
on I will explicate plasticity as the basic disposition intrinsic to bodies.
Ontological dispositions will be shown to equal practical powers.
2. Sensations are actualized relationally. Relationality must be understood
alongside, not in opposition to, objectivity. It is in their relations that
objects exhibit their capacities, or deploy themselves. This does not mean
that objects are reducible to their relations, however. Using the sandpaper
example again, it can be said that sandpaper is abrasive only to surfaces that
are receptive to abrasion. That is, only the right conditions can manifest its
abrasiveness. A piece of wood will receive sandpaper sensations differently
than a marble or glob of pudding. So, while sensations belong to objects
as effective dispositions, they only make sense or actualize themselves when
they enter relations with something that senses them. They never fully
actualize themselves in any given relation, however. Something is always left
in reserve. Other actualities remain dormant, as it were. Consider color, for
example. As Alva No shows, color can be understood as the way a thing
is disposed to change its appearance in color-critical conditions. To have
a color, in other words, is to affect and be affected by the environment in
specific ways that vary according to the specific dispositional capacity of
a specifically colored object: An object with a determinate color acts on,
or responds to, its environment in a special way.123 There is never a point
at which this is not occurring. Relations are ubiquitous, but they do not
exhaust the being of bodies.
Human perception is not a necessary condition for the manifestation
of sensations. Abrasion makes sense to any surface that is susceptible to
scratching. Sensations therefore display a liminal and diacritical aspect: they
always express themselves in relations between objects (liminal) and are
effective in different ways which are determined by the sensory capacity
and susceptibility of the objects encountered (diacritical). The liminality of
human sensibility is conditioned by the fact that the body is both part of and
in some ways out of step with the world. It is immanent to, but also seems
to transcend, the material world.124 Diacriticality implies that sensations are
always caught up in a differential sensory system, each system comprising

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 63

a distinct, complex environment with countless folds and niches that afford
singular encounters.125
It should be noted here that I insist on the relationality of sensation to
acknowledge what Timothy Morton has called the ecological thought,
roughly the idea that every living and nonliving thing in the universe is
interconnected, at all times. But interconnection does not necessarily
eliminate alterity.126 Sensory environments are always caught up in an
ecology of sensations and qualitative forms, some of which are foreign,
unknown, or unknowable. But as I have indicated, sensation is not purely
relational, nor are bodies reducible to the sets of relations entangling them.
Bodies, even when deployed in multiple relations, always hold something
in reserve. Otherwise, how could they ever forge new relations? Sensation is
best regarded as the precondition of relation; it is what enables bodies to enter
into and exit alliances. It is the bodys disposition/power which houses the
architecture that allows it to shift allegiances.
3. The practical value of sensation is ambivalent. Sensations can enable and
disable bodies, stimulate or violate them. Because sensations are ambivalent
in this way, it is not possible to interpret them as merely subjective or
internal. Some sensations result in the dissolution of the subject and
their destructive capacity must be accounted for. Neither Merleau-Ponty
nor Levinas adequately addresses this dimension of sensation. Sensory
ambivalence provides the chance to build an ethics of embodiment which is
based on our vulnerability to and nourishment by sensations.
4. Sensations are a source of alimentation. It has already been said that
sensations must be in some sense objective if we are to explain their
effectiveness, or what Aristotle refers to as sensations dependence on being
moved and being affected.127 This objectivity also accounts for sensations
capacity to nourish our senses and feed our bodies in the way that a melody,
painting, or landscape has the power to transform or invigorate us, or how
a contour of the ground orients our posture and gait. On this rendering,
the Aristotelian distinction between the nutritive and sensitive faculties is
collapsed. Sensation just is nutrition, alimentation. Without alimentation our
bodies are left to languish in their habitual sensory circuits.128 Alimentation
and nourishment are two of the most significant elements I take from
Levinass corporeal ontology.

64 Chapter 1

5. Sensations are basically anonymous. The anonymity of sensation is what


prevents it from becoming an anthropocentric concept, one which would
drive a wedge between the human and nonhuman worlds. Contra Aristotle,
sensations do not rely on humans for their effectiveness; humans may feel
the abrasiveness of sandpaper in ways that a piece of wood cannot, but
this is only because humans (and some nonhumans) possess the power to
translate sensations into affections or to process sensations into perceptions
or cognitions or linguistic expressions, thus personalizing them. This is
why I would say that perception is personal while sensation is not. The
human ability to translate sensations into something personal speaks to
the relationality of sensations, not to their objective constitution. It will be
said that sensations are always attached to a particular object (MerleauPonty speaks not of red, but of the unique red of this carpet), but this by no
means renders the quality qua quality proper to any particular object. They
are, as it were, transobjective. I will argue that our identity is constituted
by the sensations we receive as well as the sensations we give off, but I
will insist that these sensations do not belong to us, but rather we belong
to them. Subjects, then, need sensations in a way that sensations do not
need subjects.
6. The time of sensation belongs to the past. Sensations are almost
universally regarded as phenomena of presence and equated with how
they immediately manifest themselves to the senses. But the actualization
of sensations requires a different temporal signature. Without the duration
involved in the movement of my hand across a pane of glass, I cannot
sense its smoothness. Over time sensations accumulate in the body (as
habits, for instance) and leave a unique footprint on our body schema.
This sedimentation may lead to a desensitization or inattention to
familiar sensations, a condition involving practical consequences, like a
diminishment of adaptability. Insofar as sensations are virtually real, their
existence prior to actualization belongs to the past, to what Merleau-Ponty
calls a past which has never been present. In a sense, then, the reality of
sensation remains forever past, shattered as it is when it manifests its efficacy
at the level of present attention, perception, or reflection. It therefore
challenges the priority given by Heidegger and others to future-oriented
human projects. Again, sensation is the precondition of these projects.

Post-Dualist Embodiment, with Some Theses on Sensation 65

These six theses arise out of a rereading of the corporeal ontologies


of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. But neither Merleau-Ponty nor Levinas
subscribes to all six of sensations dimensions. Complete adherence to these
theses requires that we formulate an independent position which is in some
respects at odds with the French phenomenologists. This position emerges
in this book and has its most elaborate expression in the last two chapters,
wherein I attempt to develop an original view of the embodied subjects
reliance on sensation.

Three Body Types


The modern view which sees sensation as merely subjective or dependent
on objective, primary qualities, does not adequately address the reality
of sensation. Some contemporary philosophers have tried to respond to
this inadequacy, and it is their attempts to do so that orient the analyses of
the following text. Additionally, I suggest that the inadequacy in question
arises because sensation is always kept at a safe remove from the subject and
that this gesture is informed by a dualist ontology that conceives the body
as separate from the perceptual and intellectual operations of the subject.
Such a view obscures the subject-object relation as well as the nature of
the intercorporeal community. My cursory history of the fate of sensation
in the post-Kantian milieu serves not as an indictment of modern idealism
tout court, but rather as an heuristic with which to understand the corporeal
phenomenologists desire to inject sensation with new life. The problem
now is to give an account that adheres to the volatility of sensation and
captures the aspects of experience left out of the Kantian/Husserlian model.
The resolution of this problem reveals not only a more complex picture of
sensation itself, but also demonstrates the central function of sensation in
the processes of corporeal individuation, the constitution of bodily identity,
and intercorporeal commerce. Such an understanding motivates my critique
(understood in the Kantian sense) of the phenomenology of the body and
the development of a practical theory of corporeal power.
My own view of the body as plastic emerges through an exploration
of the phenomenologies of Merleau-Ponty (Chapters 2-3) and Levinas
(Chapter 4), with whom I travel up to the point at which they no longer
pursue the questions that I would like answered by a theory of embodiment.

66 Chapter 1

Admittedly, these questions are my own concern and are motivated by


a materialist impulse that neither phenomenologist attempts to satisfy.
Merleau-Pontys reversible body, which is developed in response to the
modern theory of sensation and really begins to take form in the chapter
on Sense Experience (le sentir) in Phenomenology of Perception, is treated
first. There are traces of the reversible body at play in The Structure
of Behavior and this model is modified in texts like Eye and Mind,
Czannes Doubt, The Childs Relations with Others, and The Visible
and the Invisible, but the most substantial articulations appear in the
Phenomenology, which nowadays is often overshadowed by the ontological
promise of The Visible and the Invisible. My view is that the earlier text is by
no means superseded.
Partly in response to an apparent ethical defect in Merleau-Pontys own
philosophy, Levinas deploys what I call the susceptible body. If MerleauPontys body downplays its passivity in favor of its competence or grasp
(prise) of things, consequently misrepresenting the volatility of sensitive life
and posing an obstacle to the solicitations of other bodies, then Levinas
provides an account of the body which overstates the vulnerability of the
body and obscures the enabling effects of sensation. Notably, however, he
does provide unique resources for thinking sensation in its transcendental
and alimentary functions, as well as its affective and material dimensions.
The plastic body I eventually endorse against the phenomenologists
(Chapter 5) is a reconstruction built from components found in both
Merleau-Pontys and Levinass texts, most important of which is the carnal
sensibility they offer as a replacement for the Kantian model. Following
James, Dewey, and Malabou, among others, the plastic body balances what
I see as two extreme yet opposing descriptions of the body-world relation.
Once this balance is struck we then have an account of embodiment
that provides an alternative to the correlationist view of sensation
and subjectivity, narrows the gap between phenomenology and nonphenomenology, and provides the basis for a practical philosophy grounded
in the aesthetic life of the body (Conclusion).

Chapter 2
Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation
Let us return to sensation and scrutinize it closely enough to
learn from it the living relation of the perceiver to his body
and to his world.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

At this point we have a historical framework in place to situate the


reformulation of sensation in Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. This chapter
and the next focus on what Merleau-Ponty has to say about the bodys
constitution, the aesthetics of embodiment, and the nature of sensation.
They adduce the divergence between sensation and perception as MerleauPonty understands it, principally in the Sense Experience (Le Sentir) chapter
of Phenomenology of Perception. My purpose is to exhibit Merleau-Pontys
ontology of the body, paying specific attention to the practical function of
sensibility, and ultimately to challenge his thesis that the intercorporeal
relation is fundamentally synchronic and reversible. My critique results in
the claim that if we maintain Merleau-Pontys thesis that the perceptual life
of the body is the bedrock of experience, then it becomes difficult to explain
the asymmetry of violence and the reality of hostility, as well as the death of
the body and a fortiori the disintegration of perception entailed in death.

68 Chapter 2

The Centrality of the Body


It is undeniable that Merleau-Ponty makes the body central to his
philosophy of the subject and that the ideality of the realdefended by
countless thinkers before and after him, including his Gestalt alliesis
contested by his theory of embodiment and his primacy of perception
thesis. By putting the body at the base of his analyses, indeed at the birth
of the world, he puts the body immediately in touch with the objects of
human perception and argues for the codependent, dialogical constitution of
subject and object.129 By making perception primary, he shows how things
and persons, minds and ideasin short, determinate entities as sucharise
out of the indeterminacy, or nascent figuration, of the perceived world.
Sometimes he equates body and perception; other times he casts the body
as an instrument or vehicle of perception. Most commentaries resolve this
inconsistency by showing that Merleau-Ponty means to overcome mindbody dualism by relocating consciousness from the mind to the lived body,
or they excuse him for carelessly invoking the dualism he clearly rejects.
There is no conscious mind within the body: it is just the body itself which
is conscious. This is his explicit view.
It is not always noted, however, that the body is only important for
Merleau-Ponty because it is essential to any account of the nature of
perception. His introduction of the body into the discourse of perception is
meant to challenge classical philosophers of mind (Descartes, Hume, and
Kant, for instance) as well as the dominant psychological theories of his
day, particularly behaviorism. The body imbues the primacy of perception
thesis with a practical perspective that redefines the objective world as a
series of adumbrations and meaningful forms determined by the corporeal
constitution of the subject. It is precisely the embodied dimension of
perception that is missed by the classical philosophers on Merleau-Pontys
view. As for his opponents in psychology, they fail to acknowledge that a
mechanistic view of behavior overlooks the vital role that meaning plays
in human consciousness. Behaviorism remains beholden to the actuality
of stimuli, even when it does talk about anticipation. Anticipation, as
the behaviorist views it, is always a mechanical reaction to stimulation,
not a creative or interpretive encounter with meaningfulness. Human
consciousness, in Merleau-Pontys estimation, has the ability to orient

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 69

itself by the possible, the virtual and these capacities are to be located in the
structure of perception.130
Despite his corporeal orientation, it could be said that MerleauPonty is not really interested in the body as a material entity. He is only
concerned with how the bodys situatedness shapes perceptual experience
and the sense of the world. He is not immediately interested in addressing
the metaphysical questions which surround the body or incarnation, nor
is he bothered about reconciling the phenomenology of embodiment
with the research of the physical sciences, as the current efforts of
neurophenomenology and embodied cognition are attempting. Or rather, he
would prefer to explain empirical research on the basis of phenomenology,
not the other way around, as is the trend today. The body as perceived
and lived, as given phenomenally to the consciousness inhabiting it, is his
primary object of description. Most of what he says about the lived body
is evidently given to perception; it is neither speculative nor deductive. He
thus adopts Husserls distinction between Leib and Krper in order to set the
latter aside and focus exclusively on the former. His analyses are undeniably
founded upon this distinction.
Krper is the determinate, objective body of science. It is known from the
third-person standpoint. It is the physiological body that functions in many
ways below the level of consciousness and that is constantly degenerating
and regenerating with the passage of time. Leib is the conscious body, the
body that experiences the world as a network of meaning instead of as a
field of causal interactions. When the lived body (Leib) is in pain it confronts
that pain with horror or with patience. By contrast, pain for the objective
body (Krper) is little more than a physiological change of state and is
legible not by the body itself but only by an external observer trained to
read its biological or neurochemical data.131 Whenever Merleau-Ponty is
explicating the life of the body it is the lived body he intends to describe. His
object of study is, to be sure, circumscribed by a methodological decision:
his adoption of phenomenology and its strict adherence to what appears (as
given) to consciousness.
The problem of the body is not simply, for Merleau-Ponty, a matter of
simple description or a vindication of first-person experience. It represents
the problem of how there is for us an in-itself (PP 71/86), or how it is

70 Chapter 2

possible for perception to immanently order the perceptual field while


at the same time revealing the world as a transcendent phenomenon. To
reconcile this apparent paradox Merleau-Ponty interrogates the fact that
perception is never divorced from a bodys perspective on things. In order
to disclose the significance of perspective, he is forced to come to terms
with the ontological meaning of the body. Therefore, instead of considering
the body as an obstacle to be overcome, or as a material thing, MerleauPonty conducts a critique of the body as the very condition of possibility
for disclosing the world (PP 68/82). He posits that The object-horizon
structure, or the perspective, is no obstacle to me when I want to see
the object; for just as it is the means whereby objects are distinguished
from each other, it is also the means whereby they are disclosed (PP
68/82). This means that our corporeity not only circumscribes our
finitude, our determination as creatures locked within a given spatial and
temporal horizon, but that horizonality, or the figure-ground structure,
is basic to perception, knowledge, and the individuation of bodies. It is a
transcendental condition of experience.
It must be kept in mind that inserted in the middle of the figure-ground
structure is a third term. This is the body (PP 101/117).132 Since the body
plays such a pivotal role in the structuring of perception, and therefore the
world, it is necessary to outline the ontology of the body to reveal MerleauPontys general theory of perception and, consequently, being. After all, he
does say that the perceiving subject is the perceived world (PP 72/86). To
understand Merleau-Pontys theory of the subject and how it interacts with
the world, we must first know what makes up the lived body.

Perception and the Lived Body


It would seem that by beginning with perception Merleau-Ponty is mainly
concerned with epistemological questions, or at least with the question
of how we access and apprehend things. This is implied when he says
in The Primacy of Perception that his project is not a question of
reducing human knowledge to sensation [sentir], but of assisting at the
birth of this knowledge, to make it as sensible as the sensible, to recover
the consciousness of rationality (PrP 25/67). As well, M.C. Dillons classic
Merleau-Pontys Ontology is curiously oriented by a classical epistemological

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 71

problem: Menos paradox.133 This right away suggests that Merleau-Ponty


is occupied with unraveling our knowledge of the things themselves rather
than the things themselves. Moreover, by closely following Husserl, it would
seem that Merleau-Ponty is endorsing some form of idealism, even if not the
strong transcendental type.134 But Merleau-Ponty actively criticizes idealist
presumptions by repeatedly pointing to the incongruity between perception
and things perceived. Thus, while his primacy of perception thesis works
as a response to a host of epistemological viewpoints,135 it also advances an
ontological position which speaks to the constitution of both subjects and
objects, and finds these entities manifesting an autonomous life of their own
that actively resists cognitive synthesis or total comprehension.136
The double epistemological/ontological concern marks a tension within
Merleau-Pontys methodological starting point: immanent perceptual
phenomena. How can specifically human perception reveal to us what
ultimately exists in itself? That is the paradoxical question Merleau-Pontys
phenomenological ontology seeks to answer. The paradox is ostensibly
resolved when Merleau-Ponty recognizes that the duality of subject
and object, in-itself and for-itself, is founded by perception, rather than
presupposed by it.
The first philosophical act would appear to be to return to
the world of actual experience which is prior to the objective
world, since it is in it that we shall be able to grasp the
theoretical basis no less than the limits of that objective world,
restore to things their concrete physiognomy, to organisms
their individual ways of dealing with the world, and to
subjectivity its inherence in history. Our task will be, moreover,
to rediscover phenomena, the layer of living experience
through which other people and things are first given to us, the
system Self-others-things as it comes into being; to reawaken
perception and to foil its trick of allowing us to forget it as a
fact and as perception in the interest of the object which it
presents to us and of the rational tradition to which it gives
rise. (PP 57/69)
The apparent immediacy of perception, which is no longer the
impression, the object which is one with the subject, but the meaning, the

72 Chapter 2

structure, the spontaneous arrangement of parts (PP 58/70), is defined in


non-objective terms and cannot be dissociated from the network of concrete
meanings that are exchanged at the intercorporeal level. Perception is not
first a matter of intuitive apprehension or judgment, it is a dialogue of
physiognomies corporeal arrangements whose sense is deciphered and
rendered determinate by the bodys practical know-how.
John Sallis identifies three important characteristics of perception.
These encapsulate the ontological consequences of Merleau-Pontys
primacy of perception thesis. By designating perceptual experience as
primary, Merleau-Ponty shows that perception is original, autonomous,
and foundational.137 All our reflections, and thus everything we know,
have their origin in perception. The fund of perceptual experience is
already there before our senses, full of animation, form, and meaning.
Perception is not produced by the subject: the subject always finds itself
inhabiting, from a singular perspective, a phenomenal field whose horizon
is forever receding and whose figures are always shifting their look. For
phenomenology, the resistance this field offers to our gaze reveals it to be
beyond our comprehension and in some sense prior to us. The phenomenal
field, in short, is not a human fabrication. It conditions human fabrication.
The open, ever growing perceptual field that Husserl calls the Lebenswelt
comprises phenomenologys version of the transcendental (PP 61/74; VI
185-186/239).
Whereas for Kant the transcendental ego is what unifies and stabilizes
the sensible realm, for Merleau-Ponty only a subject situated within an
environment is able to negotiate the coordinates that characterize experience
and furnish itself with the material that founds understanding, judgment,
reflection, and action. A subject so aloof from the world as to be able to
constitute space as pure form would be no more capable of distinguishing
up from down than would a subject so subordinated to the world as
to be merely receptive of non-oriented sense-content, says Sallis.138
Perception and constitution are what takes place between subjects and
objects. It belongs neither to the subjective nor the objective side of things,
but rather involve (folds, envelops) the subject and the object at once. The
fundamental opacity or ambiguity of this involutionary movement resists
objective circumscription and prevents the evidence of perception from

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 73

being absorbed into the circuit of reflective thought.139 The object given
in perception is never given completely, yet we nevertheless observe and
interact with it as a unified thing (PrP 15/47).
By designating perception as the birthplace of the world, while at the
same time imbuing this place with an irreducible ambiguity, Merleau-Ponty
poses a considerable challenge for anyone asking, What exists? Is it a
disfigured world eventually figured by perception, or is there some figuration
prior to perception? Is matter nothing without perceptual form, or is matter
always already formed? For phenomenology, it seems necessary to always
reformulate this question as: What meaning can I discover, given my finite,
corporeal constitution? Of course, this echoes the Kantian critical question,
What can I know? But Merleau-Ponty modifies the Kantian problem,
which attempts to draw the limits of rational knowledge, by turning the
synthetic act of cognition into a problem of synthesis whose solution is the
lived body. As Sallis puts it, The body, to which is linked the whole series
of reductions that indicate the need for synthesis, is, in a sense, the agent
of the synthesis that is needed.140 This does not mean that Merleau-Ponty
simply replaces Kants transcendental ego with a lived body that remains
free of the effects of history. The body is always already saturated with its
object (PP 215/249) and a history, and thus not the proper origin of the
world. The body that performs the synthesis of perceptual experience is
never completely aloof from the world because there is always something
impersonal and improper about the body (PP 215/249)a foreignness
inhabiting itunlike its self-identical doppelganger, the transcendental ego.
Moreover, despite its capacity to withdraw from the world in reflection,
the lived body always remains tied to its world by an intentional thread (PP
72/86).141 The subject-object correlate is irreducible; it colors everything that
can be said about the reality of things and the life of the subject.
The need for a transcendental faculty of synthesis becomes superfluous
if the body already accomplishes the coordination of experience. Now,
Merleau-Ponty does not say that matter is formed prior to perception,
but he also does not say that it is not formed. He says that the genesis of
form is traceable by examining perception, which, again, does not tell us
something explicit about things but rather about how we know them. In
positive terms, Merleau-Pontys task is to retrace, beginning at the level

74 Chapter 2

of profiles, the constitution of the object, in such a way as to show how


at each level there is already a synthesis initiated within the matter itself
without there being any need for an extrinsic act of synthesis.142 The body
is able to accomplish this retracing because it is inserted directly into the
perceptual horizon and serves as the anchor in a total system of possible
profiles in their correlation with certain motor possibilities.143 The body
is always converging in practice upon an optimum perspective, or an
increasingly coherent system of appearances, but never absolute knowledge
of the object itself (PP 301-303/347-350). The object always evades the
reach of perception despite perceptions increasing ability to make sense of
or manipulate it. Although perception is foundational, it discloses objects
as independently constituted, and never reaches complete convergence
with the object.
In a frequently cited working note to The Visible and the Invisible MerleauPonty acknowledges that by beginning with perception in Phenomenology
of Perception he prevented himself from articulating the kind of non-dualist
ontology that he was working out in his later texts. When he admits that
The problems posed in Ph.P. are insoluble because I start there from the
consciousness-object distinction (VI 200/253), he realizes that it is
impossible to bridge the gap between subject and object, as well as lived
body and objective body, if these binaries remain cast as ontologically
distinct. He thought that, by beginning with perception, subject and object
could be shown to achieve their (abstract) distinction from out of the more
primary unity of perception, considered as a dynamic intentional nexus.
Ultimately, the argument runs, it is the bodys practical competence that
carves out the contours of reality: My body is the fabric into which all
objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the
general instrument of my comprehension (PP 235/272). It is clear that
it is only through the bodyhere portrayed as a kind of prosthetic of the
understandingthat the world is organized into semi-discrete and discrete
objects of perception. But is this an ontology of what exists or an ontology of
embodied perception?
The lived body problematically possesses a kind of double life. On the
one hand, Merleau-Ponty wants the body and its practical aims to provide
the transcendental background against which perception is generated

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 75

(consider his privileging of spatiality of situation over intelligible


Newtonian space in PP 100/116). On the other hand, Merleau-Ponty insists
that the body always finds itself caught up in a world populated with objects,
people, meanings, and ideas. He maintains the first position in order to
escape a naturalistic or positivistic conception of subjectivity. He maintains
the second position in order to avoid charges of idealism or immaterialism.
These evasions force him to maintain a view of the embodied subject as
both generative of, and generated by, its perceptual world, a view which
has become more common than it was in the 1940s. The generated world
is identical to (or at least correlated with) the perceived subject insofar as
the subject is what gives form to the world, by orienting its spatiality, for
example (see PP, chapter 3). The objective world that generates the body
is what harbors the perspectival and practical environment we always
find ourselves within, and which resists us when we try to encompass it
in theory or practice. The objective environment would be the world in
which things store their unseen profiles, the forgotten world of anonymous,
non-intentional sensory existence which lines the visible world (PP 215216/250-251). As objective, or invisible, it can only be inferred from the
evidence of the visible.
By bracketing the objective world as well as the body taken as physical
object, and beginning with the world as perceived, Merleau-Ponty gives
himself over to a sustained phenomenological interrogation of the aporetic,
somewhat Schellingian, query, How can my body serve as both the origin
of the world and its product? His book-length reply details the ways
in which the body primarily interacts with its world at the phenomenal
level, that is, at the level of perception. This interaction is several times
characterized as a dialogue of reciprocal determination. Subject and object
codetermine each other, exchange forms, and trade meanings (PP 127,
129, 132/148, 150, 154). Neither subject nor object enjoys privilege of
determination.
This maneuver, that is, beginning an ontological investigation with
perception, raises questions about the pre-perceptual genesis of the body,
particularly at the material level. Some of these questions are addressed by
Merleau-Ponty, but we must ask whether his account of the pre-perceptual
genesis of the body falls within the scope of phenomenology or whether it

76 Chapter 2

must have recourse to a supplementary speculative metaphysics, a question


of absolute origins. I will argue that Merleau-Pontys phenomenology does
draw upon a metaphysics of the body, but that this metaphysics derives from
and transgresses his phenomenological investigations.
Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that the primacy of perception thesis
is reminiscent of an idealist epistemology that assumes the constitutive
power of consciousness. But if the body is what makes perception part of
the objective world while at the same time serving as the condition of that
worlds appearance, then a kind of distance must be introduced between the
material world in which the body is an object of science and the lived world
in which the body engages a meaningful existence. Otherwise, how can
he explain the bodys frankly transcendent constitutive power? As MerleauPonty remarks, If my consciousness were at present constituting the world
which it perceives, no distance would separate them and there would be no
possible discrepancy between them (PP 238/275). Whence the discrepancy?
Whence the escape from immanence?
Merleau-Ponty answers that what makes the body more than a physical
object is the distance opened within consciousness by the polarization of
subject and object effected by intentionality. Intentionality is both what
animates the body as a subject, but also what keeps it necessarily correlated
with the world. It enables transcendence, but only ever a transcendence
within immanence. Like the figure-ground structure, intentionality is
an ontological fact of existence (PP xvii/xii). In principle, it holds that
conscious life and knowledge are inextricably bound up with the historical
horizon in which we act, interpret, and exist. At the corporeal level
intentionality structurally links my lived body, my objective body, the
body of the other, and the objects of the world. Each comprises a quasiindependent node of the perceptual web, but each node is nevertheless
always correlated with the others.

The Materiality of the Body


Merleau-Pontys lived body must be decidedly closer to the material
world for his phenomenology to challenge the idealist phenomenology of
Husserl. That is, the lived body must really possess a kind of materiality that
is unappreciated by Husserl. To achieve this materialization, Merleau-Ponty

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 77

must posit a pre-perceptual life of the body, a life lived before constitution.
Otherwise, the body is reducible to its perceptual activity: esse est percipi.
Merleau-Ponty must allow that the bodys capacity for perception is not
merely the result of its own ideal activation, and that its constitution is
not comprised only of existentials that operate in perceptions but
remain unperceived themselves (VI 178, 180, 189/232, 233-234, 243;
see PP 238/275).144 Upon reflection the phenomenal field must show
itself to have already been a field full of extant bodies. Without a site of
genuine intercorporeity Merleau-Ponty would have to resort to a quasitheological account of the incarnation of consciousness in the body, or
leave the birth of consciousness, along with the gap between self and other,
shrouded in mystery.
Faced with the threat of immaterialism and despite the constraints
placed on his discourse by the phenomenological perspective, he does
not pass over in silence the pre-phenomenal constitution of the body. He
delimits its materiality from an ontological, rather than physiological or
biological, perspective. This requires some speculative deviation from his
commitment to phenomenological method.
When I say that Merleau-Ponty speculates about the constitution of
the body, I mean that he admits elements into his account of subjectivity
that are not disclosed phenomenologically. Methodologically, his
phenomenology displays a hybrid form, foregoing as he does the quest
for scientific purity exhibited in so many of Husserls texts. It is a mixture
of phenomenological description, empirical research, and metaphysical
speculation. Disentangling these threads is not always easy. Merleau-Pontys
ambiguous deployment of method is partly what enables him to escape
the fate of subjective idealism; it is what Lakoff and Johnson admire when
they call Merleau-Ponty an empirically responsible phenomenologist.145
For instance, in order to explain the rigidity of psychological prejudices
like racism and their influence on the structuring of perception, MerleauPonty appeals to the genetic, historical, and physiological dimension.
He does this not to show that perception is always forced to conform to
a reified biological or social structure (Child 107/15), but to argue that
heredity and social conditioning are co-constitutive of the individual and
his or her attitude toward others. He writes that it is not the case that

78 Chapter 2

the way in which the child structures his social environment is unrelated
to the hereditary or constitutional dispositions of his nervous system
(Child 108/16). The individual is never simply determined by his or her
environment. The individual operates between the biological and the
social, takes a position in the face of [these] external conditions (Child
108/17, my emphasis). Here we see the phenomenological supplement to
the biological. The childs perceptual prejudices are the result of a single
global phenomenon that emerges from certain natural determinations and
social conditioning, but against which the child is able to make his or her
own meaning (Child 108/17). To comprehend the genesis and alteration of
this meaning it is necessary to see how perception is both something given
(as social prejudice and physiology) and enacted (in the bodys meaningful
responses to its perceived environment).
Unfolding the constitution of the body means giving an account of
the genesis of its many dimensions with a view to exposing how these
dimensions make up the new definition of the a priori discussed at several
points in the Phenomenology of Perception (for example, PP 220-222/255257). The corporeal a priori is addressed from at least three aspects which
do not always display a coherent relationship: (1) the primacy of perception
thesis, (2) the body as the hinge of perception,146 and (3) sensation as the
bodys original communion with the world. The primacy of perception
thesis says that the things we encounter are conditioned by, which is to
say, oriented according to, our field of perception. This field is coordinated
by the (partially anonymous) constitution of our bodies and their (often
impersonal)147 capacity to practically synthesize the world (PrP 14/4546). Of particular importance for this synthesis is the schma corporel, or
body schema,148 along with a number of other components which function
transcendentally in Merleau-Pontys view of the body as reversible. These
will be examined momentarily.
Although it operates as a transcendental, the lived body is never fully
detached from external bodies, objects, and other persons.149 The material
world and the body as subject are co-transcendentals or codependent, we
might say. This is Merleau-Pontys original philosophical innovation.150
The body for him is not an agency underlying the organization of
experience or the foundation of transcendental constitution.151 He

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 79

does argue, however, that the body organizes the space it inhabits into
functional and practicable places, although he does not mean to say that
places are generated spontaneously by individual bodies. Instead, the bodys
organizational capacity is a response to the questions the world raises,
which means that its transcendental function is inconceivable apart from
its receptive, responsive, centripetal role before the givenness of the world,
its existence as flesh amidst the flesh of the world.152 When we speak of
Merleau-Pontys transcendental perspective, we must always keep in mind
that his is an impure transcendental, a set of conditions that are themselves
conditioned by the bodys mutable history. This historical a priori is
constant only for a given phase and provided that the balance of forces allows
the same forms to remain (PP 88/104). Merleau-Pontys discussion of habit
provides the concrete key to the historical a priori, a powerful notion that
underlies much of the discussion of corporeal genesis below.
Dillons defense of Merleau-Pontys non-Kantian transcendental
philosophy does not fully appreciate the difficulty of escaping Kantianism/
correlationism, especially for the phenomenologist. On the one hand, the
primacy of perception thesis opposes the Kantian model by claiming that
the phenomena of perception are prior to the divorce of subject and object,
subject and object being abstractions conditioned by the primordial layer of
perceptual experience. The transcendental is generated not by a pure lived
body, but by the lived bodys phenomenal, intercorporeal encounters in the
system self-others-world (PP 60/73). In Dillons words, The lived body
is not a transcendental subject; it is a phenomenon situated among other
phenomena within the world horizon.153 Merleau-Ponty further displaces
the constitutive role of the subject by speaking sometimes of the thing as
the source of the body-subjects unity (PP 322/372). But how can the thing
provide the lived bodys unity if the things unity is merely an abstraction
from perception, which is itself conditioned by the lived body, which is
merely a phenomenon? Merleau-Ponty maintains that neither body nor
object possesses priority; it is their dialogue, communion, or intertwining
which is primary. But if he wants to displace the constitutive role of the
subject, then he must posit the externality of other bodies a priori. This,
however, is disallowed by the primacy of perception thesis as well as the
general phenomenological perspective Merleau-Ponty adopts from Husserl.

80 Chapter 2

To sidestep idealism and ground embodied perception in intercorporeity,


Merleau-Ponty needs the lived body to be the product of intercorporeal
encounters rather than their condition of possibility. This requires him to
commit to both an ontological realism about other bodies and a correlative
dualism that enables his subject-object dialogue to be truly dialogical. His
realism is most evident in his treatment of sense experience, where he looks
beyond what is given phenomenally to perception in order to speak about
what lies below the level of intentionality; his tacit commitment to dualism
in the Phenomenology gets recast in terms of reversibility in The Visible and the
Invisible, arguably to the detriment of alterity.
Sometimes he speaks to the contrary, but there is neither a pure a priori
nor a pure a posteriori in Merleau-Ponty.154 For instance, he says that the
habituated body schema remains forever anterior to perception [qui reste
toujours en de de notre perception] (PP 238/275), which would seem to
indicate that the body schema is always prior to the existence of the world,
and is therefore an ahistorical a priori. The body and perception would be
non-identical in such a case, the former always already constituted prior to
the appearance of the space-time of perceptual events. But since temporality
is always indexed to embodiment for Merleau-Ponty, there would appear to
be no body before time or time before the body. We must understand time
as the subject and the subject as time, he says (PP 422/483).155
If the body and perception are identicalthat is, if there is no body
before perception and no perception before bodyit is necessary to make
sense of the latency of the lived body, the body lived unconsciously, prior to
reflection and in the background of explicit perception.156 As Merleau-Ponty
writes in Eye and Mind: There is that which reaches the eye directly, the
frontal properties of the visible; but there is also that which reaches from
belowthe profound postural latency [latence posturale] where the body
raises itself to see (EM 187/85-86). This is the body in the grip of the
corporeal world, constrained by the exigencies of its embodied experience,
and always locked in a circuit of habits and default practices.
When posited from the phenomenological point of view the primacy
of perception thesis has the disadvantage of not really explaining how it is
possible for the bodyits habits, body and postural schemata, behavioral
circuits, style, or physiognomyto be constituted prior to its own

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 81

perception. And yet, these things must already be in place for perception
to function. Indeed, phenomenology does not allow us to speak of an
anonymous or impersonal body that underlies conscious perception
and precedes the differentiation of my body from the body of the other (PP
240/277; Child 119/33). Such a dimension must be admitted, however,
unless we are willing to concede that the body perceives every event or
alteration that affects it, even the imperceptible. This would be stretching
the meaning of perception too far, I think. Like Merleau-Ponty (VI
200/253), I see the troublesome status of the impersonal/imperceptible
as a methodological problem that limits his early work but which can
be overcome by adopting an ontological perspective, as he does most
explicitly in The Visible and the Invisible when he shifts from the language
of consciousness and object (dualism), to the language of the flesh of
the sensible (monism).157 It remains to be seen whether he abandons the
subject-object correlation as a presupposition of his thinking of being, or if
his later work retains the basic correlationism of the earlier.

Is Perception Really Primary?


Despite his focus on first-person human perception, Merleau-Pontys earlier
texts have plenty to say about the pre-perceptual and anonymous elements
of the body. While an adequate metaphysics of corporeal individuation may
be lacking in the Phenomenology of Perception, there is a healthy ambiguity
that attends the transcendental status he assigns to the body. For instance,
a structure like the body schema might be designated as a pure a priori if it
can be shown to possess an immutable, or ahistorical, element (PP 142/166;
SB 189/204). Are their immutable structures at work in the Phenomenology?
I believe there are.
What I suggest in this discussion of the primacy of perception thesis is
that, if perception is in a strong sense essential to the configuration of being,
it is not clear how we are to conceive the materiality of the body prior to
perception. And yet, if it is the body that perceives (PP 238/275), and this
body is the product of a past which has never been present (PP 242/280),
then we are obliged to speculate about the metaphysical genesis of this
body. On Merleau-Pontys view we are forced into the position of thinking
the body as the condition of possibility of experience while simultaneously

82 Chapter 2

upholding the view that both body and world are the products of perception.
To make salient this issue it seems necessary to distinguish the body,
as what gives rise to perception, from perception as an embodied activity.
This distinction would lend primacy to the body as corporeal and render
perception a secondary activity of the body. In other words, corporeality
and perception would not be equiprimordial. It will be objected that this
distinction is precisely what is contested by all of Merleau-Pontys work
on perception. In response, I would maintain that if we push the primacy
of perception thesis to its limit, what we end up with is the limit of human
knowledge, or the finitude of thinking about the origin of perception.
The objective body may only be knowable through perception, and in
a sense borne of operative intentionality, but this does not explain how
consciousness itself gets off the ground. If, by Merleau-Pontys logic, the
existence of consciousness depends on the body (or, in Spinozas language,
the mind is the idea of the body), should we also say that the body exists
because of consciousness? Or because of perception? That does not seem
quite right. And Merleau-Ponty agrees.
The distinction I propose between the perceiving body and the preperceptual body is spurred by an asymmetry in Merleau-Pontys text
between the body and perception, two terms that are supposed to be
synonymous and therefore symmetrical. There are moments, however, where
perception is distinguished from and subordinated to the body, although
the converse does not occur. This subordination, when it occurs, challenges
the primacy of perception thesis by shifting the transcendental character of
perception to the level of corporeal sensibility. That is, sensation becomes
the transcendental condition of perception. Support for this interpretation
is found in the Sense Experience chapter of the Phenomenology, where the
privilege of perception is called into question while Merleau-Ponty attempts
a delimitation of the difference between sensation and perception. It is here
that we see the most radical elements of Merleau-Pontys transcendental
philosophy, as well as his most fecund flirtations with the concept
of sensation.
To substantiate these points I will defend the deliberately provocative
thesis that Merleau-Ponty, while attempting to account for the bodys
relation to the world, gives priorityperhaps unwittinglyto sensing,

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 83

not perceiving. The priority is granted from an ontological/metaphysical


perspective, decidedly not from a phenomenological one. Let me be clear: I
am orienting my investigation at a level not explicitly engaged by MerleauPonty, so I am not criticizing him for failing to discern what I am concerned
with here, namely, the ontology of sensation. With this caveat, we will now
pursue the following basic questions: (1) What constitutes this body that orients
our perceptual field? Merleau-Ponty has plenty to say about this. (2) Where
does this body come from, and how is it individuated from the ambiguous field of
the sensible? First we will unpack some of the primary elements of the body
and show that Merleau-Ponty consistently conceives the body as reversible,
that is, synchronized with its environment. A close look at his analysis of
sensibility reveals the mechanics of reversibility.

Synchronization and Habit


We have seen how the problem of the body is a problem of perception. We
must now uncover what this lived body is that coordinates and conditions
the subjects capacity for perception. Indeed, this capacity is what gives
meaning to the world as perceived. Where does it come from and of what
is it made? The lived body is not explicitly thematized in our everyday
operations, although we are always in some sense aware of it. Many of
its components exist in the background as we carry out our mundane
activities, and we rely on its stability and health as we go about our business.
Most of its physiological activity proceeds without our attention. When
the body becomes ill or is disturbed in some other way, it announces
itself like Heideggers broken hammer and becomes an object requiring
examination.158 In these cases it presents itself as an obstacle to be overcome
rather than a vehicle or tool that allows us to navigate our environment
with facility. Under normal circumstances our bodies are attuned to their
material situation and function together as an uninterrupted unity. As Shaun
Gallagher puts it,
When the lived body is in tune with the environment, when
events are ordered smoothly, when the body is engaged in a
task that holds the attention of consciousness, then the body
remains in a mute and shadowy existence and is lived through

84 Chapter 2

in a non-conscious experience. But when the lived body loses


its equilibrium with the environment, it suddenly appears at
center stage, announcing itself as painful, fatigued, distorted,
clumsy, embarrassed, etc.159
This does not mean that we inhabit two ontologically distinct bodies or
that the body can be divided into multiple ontological levels.160 It means
that the lived body is most of the time absent or withdrawn from perceptual
experience while at the same time conditioning that experience.161 It can
assume various degrees of conspicuousness, but for the most part it is
inconspicuous.
Equipped with this image of the normal mode of embodiment, I want to
argue that the texts prior to The Visible and the Invisible catalogue a series of
correlations between body and world that prefigure the concept of flesh, a
concept which provides a promising and problematic depiction of the bodyworld relation. These correlations can be found, among other places, in
Merleau-Pontys discussions of habit, style, physiognomy, and body schema.
Admittedly, the language of correlation prejudges the matter at hand
by smuggling in dualist/objectivist terms when these terms are precisely
what Merleau-Pontys phenomenology aims to dispel. However, given that
perception always takes advantage of work already done (PP 238/275),
there seems to be at least a minimal, or qualified, ontological objectivism
at play in Merleau-Pontys phenomenology. He believes in a world that
precedes and will outlast human perception. Moreover, Merleau-Pontys use
of terms like communion, dialogue, and synchronization suggests that
perception in the Phenomenology can be thought within a dualist framework,
even if this framework is only to be understood as the result of a more
originary unity of subject and object. In short, the correlationist prejudice
is operative in the language employed in Merleau-Pontys exposition
of perception.
The emphasis on synchronization expresses Merleau-Pontys desire to
take the middle road between rationalism and empiricism, and to strike
a balance between active and passive conceptions of embodiment and
perceptual synthesis. The body is not fully responsible for creating the world
in which it exists, he contends, but neither is it completely vulnerable to all
of the impressions inflicted upon it by material events. It is an entity whose

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 85

actions are partly enacted according to its desires and partly dictated by the
impersonal contours of its physical locale. As Madison puts it, The subject
of perception is not the free subject, the master of itself which realizes itself
to be a unique individual.162 Because the body is bound up with the world
and given a form or logic163 that it does not give itself, its capacity for
action, its existence as an I can rather than an I think, is determined by
the unreasonable promiscuity164 it carries on with its environment when
it is not reflecting on itself. The pre-personal unity of the body conditions
perception and everything perceptual experience entails. As Morris shows,
the body only perceives through its anticipatory motor explorations which
are informed by motor and body schemes that allow the body to bring the
past into the present, and thus articulate the present in a way that would
otherwise be impossible.165 Let us look at the elements of this past.
Perhaps the central correlation of body and world is habit. MerleauPontys account of the habituated body is closely tied to discussions of the
body/postural schema, physiognomic perception, and behavioral circuits,
each of which is supported by what he calls an intentional arc. The
intentional arc names the set of skills or (non-representational) disposition
that predisposes an agent to perceive and act in the world with optimum
facility. It subtends consciousness and draws together the various threads
of the practicable environment into a meaningful horizon of possibilities.
It does this by first unifying the senses into a synchronized system that
lends sensory coherence to perception. This is what Merleau-Ponty means
by synaesthetic perception (PP 229/265). The body is not just a reflex
mechanism, it is a physical entity capable of interpreting, making sense
of, and adapting to the disparity of stimulation it constantly receives.
The personal core (PP 134/156) of the body brings about the unity of
the senses, of intelligence, of sensibility and motility and goes limp in
illness, as the famous Schneider case reveals (PP 136/158-159). Habits
are crucial because they provide the body with its historically informed
behavioral identity, in the form of latent or sedimentary sets of actions
that make its surroundings familiar and workable, allowing it to sense and
perceive without always having explicitly to appeal to the personal core of
consciousness. Habit gives the intentional arc a certain regularity.

86 Chapter 2

Habits provide the body with a stable practical form. This means
that, for the body that possesses a stable identity, they are not merely
supplemental or ancillary modifications of a blank corporeity. Or rather,
insofar as we acquire them from our cultural and social environments they
are a kind of original prosthetic, not unlike language (Child 99/4-5). They
comprise a substantial part of who we are, how we experience, and what we
can do. Habits allow us to sink our attention in the present without having
to attend at each moment to what the body is presently doing or going to
do. Taken as a unified system the body is, Merleau-Ponty says, my basic
habit [lhabitude primordiale] (PP 91/107). In order to free itself from the
environment the body adopts pre-established circuits that give it the
space to pursue its intellectual projects. As he says, it is an inner necessity
for the most integrated existence to provide itself with an habitual body
(PP 87/103).166 This is a view shared with William James, who maintains
that habit condenses and simplifies the movements required to complete a
particular task, thus habit diminishes fatigue by freeing up attention.167
Habit, for James, is a material phenomenon that is registered both on
and in our bodies. He holds that our repertoire of habits depend[s] on
sensations not attended to, which means that our bodys attitude or
proprioception subtends the series of movements which make up a given
habitual action, like buttoning a shirt or brushing ones teeth.168 The bodys
attitude is written in the body and, like Merleau-Pontys intentional arc,
what enables the body automatically to make sense of a particular series of
sensations and unify them into a coherent habitual action. As he explains
in The Principles of Psychology, the phenomena of habit in living beings
are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are
composed.169
Merleau-Ponty does not share Jamess naturalistic/neuroscientific
interpretation of habit. For Merleau-Ponty habits are not stored in the
physiology of the body as muscle memories or neurological patterns. Habits
are an acquired power built upon the bodys unified capacity to grasp an
environmental directive and imbue that directive with a meaningful motor
significance of its own (PP 143/167). The sedimentation of a habit in
the body is always permeated, as Edward Casey notes, by the intentional
threads that go back and forth between the body and its ever-changing

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 87

phases, which are continually reanimated by current experience.170 In short,


habits are anchored in the intentional arc.
The acquisition of a habit involves the rearrangement and renewal
of the body schema, which underlies the habituation process as an
immediately given invariant (PP 141, 142/165, 166; translation modified).
The body schema is an invariable corporeal structure, an open system of
motor potentiality that is receptive to the cultivation of habit but not itself
capable of being dissociated from the lived body. It remains open because
it is arranged according to the shifting practical objectives of the subject,
which are not determined in a vacuum but arise in a historical horizon
and are always motivating new projects. The subject sets his or her tasks
according to the layout of his or her situation and the practical possibilities
it presents, while habits reorient the body schema according to the singular
way these possibilities are inhabited. Correlatively, the body schema is
structured as a response to concrete conditions; it is a dynamic form that is
at once shaped by material forces and regulated by the intentional arc and
existential milieu of the embodied agent. Casey writes, the habituation
which such inhabitation accomplishes involves a delicate dialectic between
the implied passivity of enclosure and the activity of getting to know our
way around in a given circumstance.171 There is never a point at which
this dialectic is not underway, which is why Merleau-Ponty says that space
is already built into my bodily structure, and is its inseparable correlate
(PP 142/166).
The sedimentation of habits in the lived body releases the subject from
the immediacy of the present and enables the movement of transcendence
that characterizes Merleau-Pontys conception of volition. The movement
of transcendencewhich is, paradoxically, enabled by a habitual willis
never a movement toward absolute transcendence. It is always a relative
transcendence, more like a reconfiguration of the immanence of being in the
world. In his discussion of being in the world we find a decisive statement of
Merleau-Pontys embodied, correlationist view of transcendence:
The world is inseparable from the subject, but from a subject
which is nothing but a project of the world, and the subject
is inseparable from the world, but from a world which the
subject itself projects. The subject is a being-in-the-world and

88 Chapter 2

the world remains subjective since its texture and articulations


are traced out by the subjects movement of transcendence.
(PP 430/491-492, my italics)172
As we know, this is not an endorsement of idealism. It does, however,
indicate that Merleau-Ponty sees our capacity to transcend any present
situation as predicated upon the immanent organization of that situation
by the bodys perceptual activity. Conversely, this activity must be seen as
a mode of the fundamental passivity of the body. The world, too, turns the
subject into a project. There is a certain plasticity underlying this dialectical
relation. Despite the apparent symmetry, however, there is a sense in
which the plastic correlation of body and worldthat is, the immanence of
embodimentis dominated by the projects/projections of the subject. This
is because the texture of the world is an articulation of the subjects
practical freedom, which means that the constraints imposed on the subject
by the world are, in a sense, self-imposed. Moreover, Merleau-Ponty
seems to suggest that the world would be a desolate wasteland without
the texture afforded it by subjectivity. It is not so much that the subject
possesses a mysterious power to escape immanence, but that MerleauPontys immanence is never pure. It is always already crisscrossed with
avenues of transcendence traced out by the subject. Perception guarantees
the complicity, which is not to say identity, of subject and world because it
has intentionality at its center. Intentionality, as we know, binds subject and
object while it simultaneously polarizes them. Its difference is subtended
by a fundamental sameness. The complicity of intentionality remains
asymmetrical, however, for it is the subject that introduces perception into
the world and initiates the movement of transcendence. The asymmetrical
relation accounts for the ability of the subject to cultivate its own habits.173
Without the movement of transcendence habits could only be imposed on
the body from outside. The body possesses a basic creativity that allows it to
habituate itself from within.
Just as tissue, neurons, blood, bone, and all the rest work together to
form our physiological system, the habits we adopt, cultivate, and inherit
make up the lived bodys non-biological armature. Without the economizing
effect of habit our bodies are destined to expend their energy on simple
reflexive behavior or waste it relearning how to perform operations

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 89

performed many times before. Our bodies are normally not restricted to
these modes of existence. Much of our lives are routinized and we perform
many tasks as if we were automata. But our automation is only apparent.
Habitual activities actually enable us to expand our range of spontaneous
actions, which is what Merleau-Ponty means when he says that habit
expresses our power of dilating our being in the world, or changing our
existence by appropriating fresh instruments (PP 143/168). Although
automatic, they amplify the range of our freedom.
The armature of habit is no less fundamental than the biological
constitution of the body. It is true that Merleau-Ponty says that habit
is merely a mode of the bodys fundamental capacity to transform
a spontaneous action into a personal gesture (PP 146/171, translation
modified), that habit particularizes the body through repetitious and regular
acts. In contrast to the substantial, teleological self of Aristotle or Aquinas
or Kant, self-identity for Merleau-Ponty is maintained through time not by
virtue of an unchanging underlying entity, but through repeated action.174
Habit, then, is ontologically basic to embodiment. More strongly, the body
subject is a habit. As Casey shows, the primacy of habit is twofold. First,
habit is the corporeal manifestation of a past that lives on in my body as its
unreflective history. In this way habit takes the lead over the very body it
requires for its own realization. Second, habit forms the basis upon which
corporeal style and personal expressivity rest. It mediates between the
general, anonymous body and the sculpted body built up by our culture and
conduct.175 In Merleau-Pontys words:
Although our body does not impose definite instincts upon
us from birth, as it does upon animals, it does at least give to
our life the form of generality, and develops our personal acts
into stable dispositional tendencies. In this sense our nature
is not long-established custom, since custom presupposes the
form of passivity derived from nature. The body is our general
medium for having a world. (PP 146/171)
Habits are what enable the body to comprehend its environment, to
achieve a harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between
the intention and the performance (PP 144/169). This understanding is of
course not intellectual, but inscribed in the body as the physiognomy and

90 Chapter 2

corporeal sens (meaning, direction) that at once opens and limits our field of
perception (PP 152/178).
Before we achieve the freedom to cultivate our own habits we must
have reached a workable state of corporeal equilibrium. The forces and
impulses we are born with must be tamed in order to make life manageable.
Only then are we free to take up the world as a field of equipment. In a
sense this is already done for us as we enter into the circuits of behavior
maintained by our culture. As Alphonso Lingis puts it, One is born with
forces that one did not contrive. One lives by giving form to these forces.
The forms one gets from the others.176 As human beings we are delivered
directly into a world whose form has been shaped by human artifice and
techniques of civilization. These forms are technologically produced and
conducive to the kind of beings we are. Cultural artifacts are ideally made
to enable the postures that we normally adopt as we take our position in the
environment. The built places that receive us as newborn infants already
have us in mind, or they at least anticipate that our bodies will resemble
those which came before. When they do not we rebuild them or adapt our
postures accordingly, or the body endures the labor of forced adaptation
and potential debilitation. The network or circuit of places made to
accommodate our corporeal physiognomies constitutes the meaning of our
built environment, the infrastructure of our culture.
The development of the lived body that Merleau-Ponty describes is
supported not just by the foresight of architects, but also by natural/cultural
atavisms that live on in our human bodies. Following Andr Leroi-Gourhan,
Lingis explains,
Unlike other mammals, which make their way head first,
the nose is no longer in contact with the environment; the
eyes have become the directing organ. The upright posture
disengaged the hands from the terrain; they now become
coordinated with the eyes. As humans begin to alter and
reconstruct the environment about them, new functions are
taken on by different body parts and organs.177
So, it is not just that our bodies are born into habitable spaces that will
enable the acquisition of habits. The ways in which we as humans have come
to inhabit our environment are ingrained in the physiology of our species,

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 91

and therefore operate to construct the postures we assume. This point


echoes, from an evolutionary perspective, Merleau-Pontys remarks about
the symbiotic relation between the child and its world. Here he is showing a
degree of sympathy with Jamess more naturalistic perspective:
In fact, from the time of his birth the child who will have
prejudices has been molded by his environment, and in that
respect has undergone a certain exercise of parental authority.
Consequently, there is no moment at which you could grasp,
in a pure state, his way of perceiving, completely apart from
the social conditioning that influences him. Inversely, you can
never say that the way in which the child structures his social
environment is unrelated to the hereditary or constitutional
dispositions of his nervous system. And so the internal
characteristics of the subject always intervene in his way
of establishing his relations with what is outside him. It is
never simply the outside which molds him; it is he himself
who takes a position in the face of the external conditions.
(Child 108/16)
Ultimately, the individual is neither social nor natural at its start. He or she
is both at once. The space between these two organizational forcesnature
and culturepossesses an elasticity [lasticit], says Merleau-Ponty,
because it can manifest both reactive and active responses within the child
(Child 108/16).

Synchronization and Affective Circuits


The body is similarly caught up in circuits that are basically affective.
Affective circuits lend our bodies an emotional identity by economizing the
things we feel. 178 Since the body is never without its passions, never without
a certain emotional disposition or mood, its affectivity must be regarded as
constitutive of embodiment.179 It can be argued, as Lawrence Hass does,
that it is affectivity that separates us from the world of inanimate things.180
Our affects imbue our intercorporeal encounters with a resonance that
can energize us (joy) or enervate us (sadness). But it is not just personal
encounters that are laced with affectivityit is the entirety of aesthetic

92 Chapter 2

experience. This insight is behind the almost essentialist discussion of


color in the Phenomenology of Perception, where colors are said to have a
felt effect and a motor significance that explains why, for instance,
red signifies effort or violence, green restfulness and peace (PP 209211/242-244).181 This is not to say that our bodies are hopelessly at the
mercy of sensory stimulation. As Merleau-Ponty argues, The subject of
sensation is neither a thinker who takes note of a quality, nor an inert setting
which is affected or changed by it, it is a power which is born into, and
simultaneously with, a certain existential environment, or is synchronized
with it (PP 211/245). Sensory and affective circuits carry our bodies along,
pushing and pulling them, because our bodies are of the sensible realm and
informed by its sensory contours. Yet we retain the ability to seize upon and
transform their meaning, and thus transcend ourselves through aesthetic/
affective creation. I cannot be caught in immanence, says Paul Klee.182
Gail Weiss explains how the intentional arc enables a series of disparate
affects to be drawn together into a personal circuit of emotion. The
intentional arc acts as the internal circuitry of the lived body in the sense
that it is always running in the background as the (normal) subject sets out
to enter into new and habitual series of tasks. Unlike the habitual circuits
that we find in James, where the body runs according to an established set
of neural pathways that correspond to its observable behavior, for MerleauPonty it is the bodys intentional arc that allows it to engage in habituated
activities unthinkingly. This intentional arc, writes Weiss, provides
human beings with an affective sensibility that enables the integration of
quite dissimilar experiences into a synthetic whole.183 For Merleau-Ponty
it is the intentional arc (which is reducible neither to the physical nor
the representational) that underpins the bodys competence, its coherent
and almost effortless way of moving, acting, gesturing, and expressing
itself corporeally. Or more specifically, it is the habituation of the bodys
intentionality through practical interaction with the environment that
establishes the intentional arc as the grid upon which the world is always
diagrammed.184
There is evidence to suggest that the emotional life of the brain is
at least as fundamental to the lived bodys normal functioning as the
meaningful dialogue it carries out at the perceptual level. The point here is

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 93

not merely that the lived body cannot perform without having an emotion
and that this emotion is localized in the brain. It is the more salient point
that the meaning culled from the world by the lived body is always in part
produced by the affective valence of our situations. A situation, as Johnson
understands it, is a complex event which occurs between an organism and
its environment. It is analogous to what Merleau-Ponty means by our
existential situation, or being in the world. Drawing from the philosophy of
Dewey as well as the neuroscience of Antonio Damasio, Johnson argues that,
Emotions are key components of complex processes of
assessment, evaluation, and transformation. As such, they are
integral to our ability to grasp the meaning of a situation and
to act appropriately in response to it. Most of this ongoing
processing and action is never consciously entertained, but
it is nonetheless meaningful to us, insofar as it constitutes an
important part of our maintaining a workable relation to our
surroundings.185
Without emotion it is difficult (or impossible) for our bodies to determine
whether or not their present environment is safe to inhabit. Without
emotional assessment the body cannot rationally act or free itself from the
defensive posture in which it remains vigilant against imminent threats.
By the same token, the body cannot read hostility or security into the land
without having fashioned an intentional arc that enables it to judge another
body as congruent or incongruent with itself. Affectivity and intentionality
are woven together, infused in the bodys sensibility.
Anticipating a bit, I would say that Merleau-Ponty too often focuses
on the intentional life of the body while neglecting its affective and
material life. In this he remains very much a proponent of the subject
as calculative agent, as actor. It is not that he fails to see that these two
dimensions of embodimentactivity and affectivityare intertwined and
equiprimordial, but that he tends to pathologize those moments when the
body loses its competent hold on the world or when its intentional arc
loses its coherence.186 This results in an inadequate view of how the body
acquires its identity and maintains its integrity vis--vis the environment. In
the same way, he tends to overlook the physical or material aspects of how
objects and emotions orient the bodys activity.187 The dialogue of subject

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and objectwhich forms the kernel of Merleau-Pontys narrative regarding


the primacy of perceptionis driven by the exchange of meanings intended
by the conscious body, not by unregistered (autonomic) signals received
from the environment or mundane sensations that fail to solicit attention.
It is, for the most part, only figures or forms which stand out against a
horizon that attract Merleau-Ponty. He has considerably less to say about
insignificant and neutral situations, as well as situations where the body
is so overwhelmed that its intentional threads are severed and the figureground structure is torn asunder.188 I am thinking here of what Foucault
refers to as limit-experiences. It is the immediacy, it seems to me, that is
significant about these situations (often painful) that Foucault describes as
pushing our bodies to the edge of their power threshold, and thus enhancing
their capacity for pleasure. It is true that our bodies recover from/adapt to
the extreme situations that test their limitsthat these situations solicit our
bodies in a particular way that often allows them to incorporate the lesson
of the situationbut the situation as disruptive event, not just its stable
outcome, must also be considered integral to the bodys historical identity.189

(Dis)Orientations
Objects, for Merleau-Ponty, have a hand in regulating the intentionality
and material form of the body. The keyboard, explains Shannon Sullivan,
has a particular shape and manner of operating that call for a specific
bodily comportment in order to use it.190 There is a plurality of significance
transmitted to the body by the keyboard that can be accommodated in a
variety of ways; the body must adapt itself to these meanings if it wants
to dialogue with, rather than dominate, the object. Entailed in this is the
idea that my body does not perceive the material world without that world
confronting it with a meaning that I have already projected onto it. Sullivan
writes: The keyboard has a meaningful place within my world because,
through my bodys familiarity with the keyboard gained through the
repeated use of it, a piece of plastic and metal has become an extension of
my intentionality. She continues: My intentionality turns a heavy object
into a paperweight; it is because of my need to hold papers down that a
random stone nearby becomes a cultural object.191 These descriptions
imply that ultimately the lived body, not its object, controls the order of

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 95

perceptual significance, the circuits of meaningful behavior, and to some


extent the very form of the objects it confronts.
There are instances, however, when the materiality of the world seizes
upon our bodies and perception is unhinged. And these are not pathological
moments, but constitutive of normal lived experience. Lingis describes the
orgasmic body as one whose seizure is not merely a failure of the intentional
arc, but the result of a decomposition of the bodys postural schema itself.
Does not the orgasmic body figure as a body decomposed, dismembered,
dissolute, where postures and dynamic axes form and deform in the limp
indecisiveness of the erotic trouble? Is it not a breaking down into a mass
of exposed organs, secretions, striated muscles, systems turning into pulp
and susceptibility?192 In a different context George Yancy describes a scene
wherein the body of a white woman is given over to involuntary gestures that
cannot be explained with a Pavlovian reflex theory or a theory of dialogical
perception. Something else is required to account for the ambush of the
black bodythe visceral response solicited in a white woman when the body
of a black man enters her elevator. She may tell herself that she knows this
body; that she has a handle on what a black body is and what it wants to
do; that she has no reason to clutch her purse closely. Yancy writes how she
may come to judge her perception of the Black body as epistemologically
false, but her racism may still have a hold on her lived body.193 Despite
herself, she tenses up, her body recoils. She does not search the mans body
to bring its true sense into relief; nor does she objectify him. She has no
need to: his darkness symbolizes a threat that her sensibility registers with
lightning quickness. She becomes self-aware, nearly to the point of paralysis.
She averts her eyes and fixes them straight ahead, trying to overcome her
bodys racism.194 But it is not that the black bodys gaze has turned her
into an object, as Sartre would say. It is the very darkness of the mans
body, his sensory and symbolic constitution, that arrests the white womans
movement. He remains an ambiguous presence, his darkness gripping her in
such a way that her intellect and volition become helpless.
Yancys work draws insight from Merleau-Ponty, but even more from
Fanons Black Skin,White Masks, a book wherein Fanon explicitly takes up
the concept of the body schema to interrogate its function in intercorporeal
relations. Ordinarily, the body schema is described as the implicit

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knowledge possessed by the body that enables it effortlessly to reach for the
cigarettes at the corner of the desk, or lean backward to retrieve the matches
buried in the desks drawer.195 Such postural facility is experienced by the
white body whether it is in its office or out in public. The black body, by
contrast, is not afforded this facility when the gaze of a white body descends
upon it. Recalling such an encounter, Fanon describes himself as once
upon a time completely dislocated by the white gaze, which apprehended
and returned his body to him sprawled out, distorted, recolored, clad
in mourning.196 What else could it be for me but an amputation, an
excision, a hemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood?197
In this scene of confiscation what gets excised from Fanons subjectivity is
precisely his body schema, or at least its enabling function. It is replaced by
a racial epidermal schema that, if anything, disables his body by entering
it into an economy operating according to hues and tints, shades of light
and dark.198
As objectified, the black body becomes laced with legends, symbols,
myths, and fantasiesall of which are woven into it by the look of the white
person and supported by what Fanon calls a historico-racial schema.199
This schema, which is situated anonymously below the body schema, hijacks
the black body, summoning it to be more than a practical, competent
corporealitywhat Merleau-Ponty calls an I can. Merleau-Ponty plainly
says that it is our competent embodied perception that weaves the fabric of
the real (PP x/iv-v). Fanon reminds us that it is the perception of the white
body that traces the contours of the world and forces the non-white body
to respond accordingly. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world
that was ours, laments Fanon, and to help build it together.200 Alas, this
world came readymade for him. To summarize this contrast, we might say
that whereas the white body is solicited by the world to actively complete it,
the black body is made to perform in a world that has always already been
completed for it. It is in this economy of colored skin that the dialogical
theory of perception exposes one of its limitations.
Perceptual experience, vision in particular, can never be divorced from
the historical and cultural milieu that orients the bodys postural schema.201
Corporeal orientation is what enables a simple look to confiscate the others
body and elicit from it involuntary movements and emotions like shame

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 97

or fear. This orientation is invariably underwritten by race, among other


social factors. As Sara Ahmed describes it, corporeal orientation is the
point at which a bodys world unfolds. This world, we learn from MerleauPonty, expands outward from its center by the appropriation of language,
tools, and other technologies. And just as our instruments become invisible
once we have adapted ourselves to themonce they become zuhanden,
as Heidegger sayswhiteness disappears as a category that normatively
structures the historical a priori of experience, not only for white bodies but
for non-white bodies as well. At any given moment this disappearance is
already accomplished. The norm is set in place. Consequently, a racialized
world oriented by whiteness dilates the white world while simultaneously
contracting the non-white world.202
All bodies depend upon the familiarity of this white world for their work.
Getting things done or doing things, writes Ahmed, depends not so much
on intrinsic capacity, or even upon dispositions or habits, but on the ways in
which the world is available as a space for action, a space where things have
a certain place or are in place. If the body is always already racialized and
oriented by whiteness, then the body schema is fundamentally structured
by the world of whiteness and compelled to inhabit whiteness in order
to navigate the world with facility, as if it were at home in whiteness, even
when that body is black or brown.203 This, of course, entails that the nonwhite body is never at home unless its home is the world of whiteness. The
orientation of whiteness is precisely what puts physical objects styles,
capacities, aspirations, techniques, habits within our grasp.204 Conversely,
failing to inhabit whiteness puts many things out of reach.
Reading Merleau-Pontys Phenomenology, it often seems that the world
he has in mind is for the most part a world filled with things to be handled
or manipulated, a world within reach of anybody or any body whatsoever.
Merleau-Pontys world is one of practical abilities. This world downplays
how in the process of getting things done the functional use of everyday
objects neglects their sensuous aspects, which require a more attentive,
impractical, or contemplative approach in order to access, accommodate,
and adapt to them.205 To be sure, the manipulation of things leads to
better understanding; this is where knowledge and know-how come from.
But we can manipulate things because we are things ourselves, sensitive

98 Chapter 2

things. Sensing enables us to orient ourselves toward goals and order our
surroundings into a meaningful habitat. For some of us this habitat is more
accommodating than it is for others.
The problem of other bodies, different bodies, is certainly considered
in the Phenomenology. So is sensing. Sense experience is considered at
length. But the exemplary scenes in Merleau-Pontys text involve a human
being confronting some inanimate object. This encounter anchors the
norms of perception. When the human is incapable of maximizing its grip
on the object, that is, when the human is unable to adjust its body to the
physiognomy of another body, Merleau-Ponty signals a pathology (PP
136/158). Yancys description of the elevator effect, Fanons theory of the
racial epidermal schema, and Ahmeds assessment of racialized corporeal
orientation, however, reveal corporeal incompetence and dissymmetry
as marginalized but no less prevalent norms of embodiment. We too are
manipulated by objects, symbols, and orientationsand not just in ways
that enable our bodies or expand our perceptual grasp.

Identity: Physiognomy and Style


Merleau-Pontys account of color perception in the Phenomenology
underscores his more general point that the bodys communication with its
environment happens primarily at the level of perceptual meaning, or what
he often calls physiognomy or motor physiognomy (PP 209/243). The
subject is not a pilot navigating the body from within or merely an organic
mechanism. The subject is able to negotiate its surroundings because its
corporeal composition is legible by other bodies, and other bodies are legible
for it. Bodies possess the power to read and respond directly to both formal
and qualitative features. Merleau-Ponty insists that perception is always
laced with sense, and it is this sense that enables the body to respond to
sensations.206 To say that colors induce the body to move in specific ways
because they display a certain physiognomy is to say that sensory experience
is always figured, that even colors are never experienced as detached from
a significant horizon.207 The body can negotiate this horizon because it
possesses its own physiognomy, one which is arranged by the physiognomy
of the world and displayed in the arsenal of gestures it typically deploys
(PP 143/168).

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 99

Merleau-Ponty deploys many concepts to characterize the original unity


of body and world. In the Phenomenology it is perception, physiognomy, and
style; in the course on nature, it is natural environment and the Earth;208 in
The Visible and the Invisible, it is the flesh of the sensible, this generality of
the Sensible in itself, this anonymity innate to Myself, as Merleau-Ponty
puts it (VI 139/183). Individual bodies for him are always cut from the same
impersonal clothpersonal individuation is something achieved, not given.
The meaning of the personal, however, can only be understood against
the backdrop of a pre-personal milieu, whether this is nature, the sensible
realm as such, or the world as the sum total of profiles or an eminently
expressive style:
The natural world is the horizon of all horizons, the style
of all possible styles, which guarantees for my experiences
a given, not a willed, unity underlying all the disruptions of
my personal and historical life. Its counterpart within me is
the given, general and pre-personal existence of my sensory
functions in which we have discovered the definition of the
body. (PP 330/381)
The concept of style gives us a clue to Merleau-Pontys understanding
of corporeal identity, which is something dynamically constituted by
environmental conditions and repetitive encounters. It must be maintained;
it is not given. Our bodies are products of the sedimented meaning that
constitutes our cultural milieu and the physical makeup of habitable
space. These conditions comprise the always tenuous historical a priori
which provides the mutable, phenomenal ground upon which the world is
synthesized, understood, and modified by the body-subject.209 Born into
a stylized environment which calls upon it to adopt a compatible bodily
comportment, the body is not inscribed with a style as much as it coherently
expresses a historical embeddedness, a set of social and physical limitations,
constraints, and possibilities. The body is a certain style informing my
manual gestures and implying in turn a certain style of finger movements,
and contributing, in the last resort, to a certain bodily bearing. Its identity
is, in a word, a work of art (PP 150/176).

100 Chapter 2

Style is not fixed in the visible form of the body, nor is it an abstraction
from the many postures a given body exhibits. A style is nothing other
than the specific animation of a body, the invisible force that renders it
recognizable in its singularity (PP 327/378).210 As Graham Harman writes,
style is a real force that animates the qualities [of a body].211 Style is not
spontaneous expression, however, and in the last analysis the general style
of the natural and social worlds serves as the condition of possibility for
the emergence of individual style, which is to an extent determined by its
historical and natural milieu.212 Expression, therefore, has the form not
only of a creative, but also of a responsive expression.213 Style is an eminently
consistent kind of response to how things are.
By defining it as style, Merleau-Ponty lends a determinate fluidity to
corporeal identity. A style, he writes, is a certain manner of dealing with
situations, which I identify or understand in an individual or in a writer, by
taking over that manner myself in a sort of imitative way, even though I may
be quite unable to define it (PP 327/378). Style is not only recognizable,
it is transferable as well as somewhat vague and elusive. It is precise,
but difficult to trace. Husserl might call it anexact. Style, of course, is
recognizable across an array of individual examples and generalized from
those many examples. One can hear a newly discovered Charlie Parker
recording and, notes Harman, immediately recognize the style; one can
and will say that that solo is really classic Bird, even though up till now it
was not part of the known Parker oeuvre.214 Beyond a certain threshold
of differentiation, however, a specific style begins to break up and lose
coherence, perhaps morphing into another style. We can imagine a masterful
jazz musician like Parker deviating so far from his usual delivery so as to
approximate John Coltrane. Like plagiarism, this can happen intentionally
or by accident, unbeknownst to the plagiarist. In such an instance, what
would be left of Parker? Has he not in a sense become Coltrane, insofar as
Coltranes musical style is the extent of his (audible) identity? In a strong
sense Parker and Coltrane just are the sounds they produce, especially
for the millions who do not know them personally. Merleau-Ponty gives
a visual example in The Visible and the Invisible, explaining that a pebble
or a shell exhibits an identity that persists throughout their variations
but within certain limits. On this principle of identity bodies maintain

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 101

their identity so long as their sensible modifications do not disintegrate the


style that animates them, whether this style is self-generated, borrowed, or
remixed from already available styles. Identity is lost when a body moves
beyond a certain range of their changes (VI 161/213), or crosses a stylistic
threshold.215 Merleau-Ponty does not fully explore the causes of these
deviations in identity, but he gives one of the best accounts of what style
means for identity.
For Descartes, by contrast, it is the mind that judges an objects
identity as continuous throughout its modifications, or that determines a
cloaked figure perceived from some distance to be a person rather than
an automaton.216 It is this same mind which, removed from the mutable
world of extended substance, retains its identity and subsists through every
modification of the body. For Merleau-Ponty it is the body that recognizes
another human being beneath the cloak. And it is the cloaked figures style
of moving that gives it away. It is through my body that I understand other
people, just as it is through my body that I perceive things (PP 186/216).
The dialectic of recognition becomes a dialogue of styles that unfolds
without the mediating judgment of the mind. The concept of style,
writes Linda Singer, secures the Others direct accessibility as a distinctive
way of inhabiting the world. His integrity is not that of a conceptual
consistency, but of an existential project which is directly present, even if
I cannot reconstruct its inner workings.217 In Merleau-Pontys words, the
other is for me an unchallengeable style that relays its identity to my own
bodys identity and makes the other in principle accessible to me as I am to
myself (PP 364/418; SB 222/238).
Style is one of the most supple phenomena adduced by Merleau-Ponty.
It ensures my existence of a stability, while allowing for the possibility of
growth and change.218 James, as we will see, refers to this stable instability
as plasticity. Merleau-Ponty, for his part, directs us to the fluid constitution
of bodily integrity. He defines the intercorporeal realm as a sphere of
immanence where bodies communicate, influence, and reinforce each other.
This communication is at once personal and anonymous, inherited and
created.219 But corporeal style remains always dependent upon the body
schema, which offers a constant stability amid the flux of intercorporeal
dialogue. Gallagher points out that the body schema should not be regarded

102 Chapter 2

as something standing between subject and object as mediator or screen


(SB 219/236), but rather, insofar as it is dynamic in taking up certain
postures and thus situating the body in respect to the environment, it
remains experientially invisibleabsently available.220 It is there and not
there, operating in the active role of organizer of sensations as something
that reflects and determines the posture that is taken up by the lived
body in its everyday situations.221 This seems to suggest that the activity
of the body schema plays a more fundamental role in the organization of
perception than any other component, including style, habit, or sensibility.

Identity: Body Schema


Faithful to phenomenological doctrine, Merleau-Ponty contends that a
figure against a background is the simplest form of experience. Experience
tells us this. But his point is not merely empirical. Lest we interpret
his observation as a simple empirical truth, he notes that this is not
a contingent characteristic of factual perception (PP 4/10). It is an
ontological truth, a truth about how the world is structured transcendentally.
And like all transcendentals in Merleau-Ponty, it is historically conditioned
by perception. As Elizabeth Grosz points out, the body schema (she says
body image) is at work in the structuring of this a priori. She writes,
The body image is necessary for the distinction between
figure and ground, or between central and peripheral actions.
Relative to its environment, the body image separates the
subjects body from a background of forces; but also within the
body, the body image establishes the distinctionsbetween
movements of limbs, say, and the rest of the bodywhich
provide it with its corporeal context. A single movement
reorients the whole of the body, creating what might be called
a gait or posture, an individual and cultural bodily style.222
Sullivan refers to this orienting of the environment/other as projective
intentionality and, like Grosz, sees such a view as troubling from a
feminist ethical perspective: Instead of being an account of the dynamic,
co-constitutive relationship between self and other, the model of
intersubjectivity offered by Merleau-Ponty tends toward that of a subjects

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 103

monologue with itself that includes a domineering erasure of others in its


projective communication with them.223
Although invaluable for understanding the corporeal structure of lived
experience, Merleau-Pontys account of the body schema is often blind
to raced, gendered, and other forms of embodiment.224 I would add that
he equally neglects unfigured experience, or the experience of sensing
what is ungraspablefor example, wind, cold, sunlight; the elemental or
atmospheric in generalthat does not stand out in relief against a backdrop.
This blind spot in Merleau-Pontys ontology, which ties the structure of
the world to the constitution of the body schema, informs his view that
body and environment, subject and object, are synchronized or reversible,
and that our primary mode of engagement with the world is our familiar
manipulation of things as well as their innocuous solicitation of us.
We have already seen that habits are specific rearrangements of the
general body schema, which serves as the variable invariant, as it were,
against which the modifications of the body are registered. We have seen,
moreover, how Fanon, Yancy, and Ahmed call into question the normative
historicity of the body schema, and how Grosz and Sullivan raise problems
about its constitutive activity. It then becomes possible to say that the
body schemas dynamic relation with its environment is constitutive of
its individuation and that its apparent invariance (PP 141/165) applies
only to its function as active regulator of movement, but does not apply to
any determinate regulations themselves. These regulations are normative,
determined culturally, historically, intercorporeally; they configure and are
configured by the world we perceive. Despite its historical variance the body
schema nevertheless operates for Merleau-Ponty as the dominant organizing
principle of perception. From the perspective of lived experience, then, the
world must appear as complicit or synchronized with the body-subjects
practical agenda, even if this agenda is laced with anonymous, impersonal,
and unconscious prejudiceswith alterity.
On the one hand, it is possible to characterize Merleau-Pontys
conception of the body schema and habit as plastic, as does Weiss.225
This does not mean that the lived bodys structure begins as a blank,
undifferentiated slate and only subsequently becomes schematized and
habituated. The lived body requires habits and body schemata in order

104 Chapter 2

to perceive, and without them perception is impossible, says MerleauPonty (Child 122/37). They are a basic condition of perception, not just an
outcome of it. These basic structures maintain their stability while remaining
open to modifications that would restructure them. The modifications
could be perceptual or physiological. Since perception is internally linked
to the bodys constitution (in as much as the body is part of the world of
perception), any restructuring entails a new style of movement, and thus a
new perceptual experience. As Merleau-Ponty writes, This link between
motility and perception shows at what point it is true to say that the two
functions are only two aspects of a single totality and that the perception
of ones entry into the world and of ones own body form a system
(Child 122/38).
On the other hand, Merleau-Ponty seems resistant to the idea that the
lived body is fully plastic, completely open to external modification or
destruction. There appears to be something indestructible about the lived
body. Insofar as it is a living (human) body, and not a body reduced to its
objective relations in the worlda merely material bodyit maintains a set
of transcendental invariants that do not succumb to the effects of material
transformation or physical breakdown. Or, put differently, it is not clear
on Merleau-Pontys analysis how these invariants could ever be directly
affected by material forces; they themselves are not material and they have
no material basis. They are, as it were, incorporeal corporealities. Included
among these, the body schema, consciousness, and intentionality serve as
the limit conditions of the embodied subject, that is to say, the conditions
that compose the agent to whom the world appears and from whom the
world receives its meaning, but who also remains out of step with the
worlds physicality. The difference of the lived body is precisely its nonphysical constitution.
Also among these invariants is the figure-ground structure of perception,
something only possessed by beings with bodies like ours. The figure-ground
structure is grounded in the body schema, which suggests that the body
schema must be always present in some form for the body to perceive. If
this is true, then perception must submit its primacy to the bodys postural
latency, which is internally related to perception but also determined by
the bodys physical, physiological, and generally material dynamics, some

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 105

of which are not perceptual and can be metaphysically separated from


the perceptual system. Put otherwise, the lived body is dual in nature:
it is both physical and non-physical, material and transcendental. These
aspects are internally related and inseparable, but it is clear that MerleauPonty favors the lived body as in some sense constitutive of objectivity,
including the objectivity of the physical body. But could the lived body exist
without the physical, objective body? Is the lived body transcendental in
the strong sense, the condition of possibility of the objective body? It seems
that it would have to be if it is the case that perception is the condition of
possibility of the world. This would also mean that the lived body cannot
be fully destroyed by the physical world, that something of it transcends
the bodys materiality. Merleau-Pontys language of flesh and incarnation
suggests a spiritual dimension to the lived body, although he is careful to
avoid that term.
The lived body is essentially the perceiving body. Perception is what
gives the body its life. But perception depends upon the body schema, which
is vulnerable to imperceptible forces. While the dialectic of perception may
work to reconfigure and reorient the body schema, material forces threaten
to destabilize/deschematize it, along with the figure-ground structure of
intentionality and even perception itself. An unschematized body is longer
capable of distinguishing figures or grounds and is not, therefore, able to
enter into dialogue with its environment. Such a body would not be lived,
in Merleau-Pontys terms; it would be reduced to an object. But the lived
body is an object; its objectivity is the site of its living. Without it there is no
place for perception or consciousness to occur, no place from which the
body schema or figure-ground horizon can organize the world of perception.
The latter are not the pure conditions of possibility for the world to appear,
for they themselves cannot appear without the objective body that functions
as their material locus.
All of this is to say that the lived body is discontinuous with the material
world in which it is embedded. There is a diachrony that marks the interface
of body and world. And yet, in Merleau-Pontys view, body and world are
synchronous with each other. They are ontologically parallel and internally
related, co-constitutive. What I am suggesting is that this is true only at the
level of perception, but not at the deepest level of their relationsensibility.

106 Chapter 2

Since, on Merleau-Pontys view, perception presupposes a functioning


body schema, and the body schema is acquired dialogically, body and
world must be synchronized for perception to occur. Otherwise, the body
schema could not develop and the dialogue could not occur. I think this
synchronization is required for Merleau-Pontys conception of reversibility,
which is implicit in the Phenomenology and explicitly emphasized in The
Visible and the Invisible. It is responsible for his view that subjects and objects
are basically articulations of a single sensible element called the flesh,
where seer and visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know
which sees and which is seen (VI 139/183). If the subject-object relation
is fundamentally diachronic, however, then it is not properly reversible. It
is asymmetrical. And it is sensibility, I will argue, alongside Levinas, that
introduces asymmetry into the subject-object relation.

A Synchronous Sensibility
The language of synchrony is employed by Merleau-Ponty on many
occasions to describe the body-world relation. It is a recurrent trope in his
texts. He speaks, for instance, of impersonal biological life and personal
life as for the most part operating in concert, the former being practically
taken for granted as something I rely on to keep me alive. As he frames it,
we exist withoutbeing able either to reduce the organism to its existential
self, or itself to the organism (PP 84/99). Citing the biography of SaintExupry, Merleau-Ponty notes that on rare occasions our organic life can
be almost completely suppressed by our personal life: It may even happen
when I am in danger that my human situation abolishes my biological one,
that my body lends itself without reserve to action (PP 84/99). Later in the
Phenomenology he explicitly notes the synchronization of the biological and
the human, yet lends a certain primacy to the biological:
as we have indicated above, biological existence is
synchronized [embraye] with human existence and is never
indifferent to its distinctive rhythm. Nevertheless, we shall
now add, living (leben) is a primary process from which, as
a starting point, it becomes possible to live (erleben) this or
that world, and we must eat and breathe before perceiving

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 107

and awakening to relational living, belonging to colours and


lights through sight, to sound through hearing, to the body of
another through sexuality, before arriving at the life of human
relations. (PP 159-160/186)
Instead of taking this as a glimpse into Merleau-Pontys tacit naturalism, we
should see it as an example of his empirically responsible phenomenology,
but an example that seems to oppose his primacy of perception argument.
From an existential point of view the biological does not come first; the
human is not built upon the organic body. The lived body expresses,
reciprocally, the physiological and psychic because it always already finds
itself absorbed in a meaningful circuit of behavior. Its biology must be
understood and expressed within its lifeworld.
This is one of the reasons why Merleau-Ponty speaks on the one hand
of an original syncretism of body and world, but then quickly dispels the
notion that sensing (sentir) is ever without a human sense (PP 211/245).
And yet, he speaks of sensibility as belonging to an anonymous life of the
senses that thrives on the fringe of my own personal life and acts. He
writes, Each time I experience a sensation, I feel that it concerns not my
own being but another self which has already sided with the world, which
is already open to certain of its aspects and synchronized [synchronis] with
them (PP 216/250). Now, this is a form of synchrony that the lived body is
not in control of, for it is established imperceptibly and concerns the body
as something that senses before it perceives, that lives materially before it
grasps meaningfully. It hints at an aesthetic dimension operating below the
radar of perception.
It is here that we see Merleau-Ponty catching sight of the immanent
relation between sensing and sensed that characterizes his notion of flesh.
More important for us, however, we are shown the diachronic point at
which the body-world relation becomes a volatile one. It is at the level of
sensing that the body is at its most vulnerable, where its hold on the world
and its capacity to dialogue with other bodies is not yet accomplished, and
is even susceptible to experiences that could dismantle its integrity. It is here
that body and world become unhinged.
Sensing relies on a synchronization or synthesis of the senses (with each
other and with their proper objects) whereby each organs unique means

108 Chapter 2

of exploring is brought together in the intersensory realm of perception.


Perception is made possible by the domain of sense itself, the community
of significance between [the visual and tactile] being inadequate to ensure
their union in one single experience (PP 225/260). This union, as we
have seen, is effected by the body and the intentional arc that allows it to
actualize the motor potentiality of an object and thereby effectively grasp
its meaning. Merleau-Ponty writes:
I am able to touch effectively only if the phenomenon finds
an echo within me, if it accords with a certain nature of my
consciousness, and if the organ which goes out to meet it
is synchronized with it. The unity and identity of the tactile
phenomenon do not come about through any synthesis
of recognition in the concept, they are founded upon the
unity and identity of the body as a synergic totality. (PP
316-317/366)
Thus, the dialogue of subject and object, of styles and physiognomies, only
occurs when the lived body is capable of conforming itself to the logic of
the world, that is, when it is capable of synchronizing with it (PP 326/377).
In his treatment of sensibility/sense experience Merleau-Ponty seems
to acknowledge the diachrony of sensation and its capacity to disrupt
body-world synchrony. But, as we will see, he is reluctant to assign explicit
primacy to sensing over perceiving. Indeed, these distinct modes of
experiencethe former unwieldy, the latter organizedare either conflated
or collapsed in most of Merleau-Pontys descriptions. Understood as a preperceptual and anonymous mode of embodiment, the volatility of sensing
poses a threat to the synchronization of body and world. It opens the body
to forces foreign to perception.
The concept of flesh developed in The Visible and the Invisible follows up
the idea of synchronization with the insight that seer and seen, touching and
touched, are reversible or chiasmic phenomena. The subject-object dialogue,
which retains the dualist form, is transformed into an immanent ontology
that regards subjects and objects as individual expressions of the sensible in
general. I would not want to go so far as to say that such a move reduces
the other to the same or eliminates alterity from intercorporeal relations.
However, I do agree with Levinas when he says that [there is a] priority of

Synchronic Bodies and Environmental Orientation 109

the flesh to the detriment of another ambiguity or ambivalence, that of


the enigma of sensation-sentiment, which is played out in the passivity of the
senses affected [sens affects] by the sensorial, between the pure undergoing or
suffering and eventual pain, and the known [su] of knowledge that remains
behind as its residue or trace.226 Later I will return to this insight.
Not unlike the idealists, Merleau-Ponty tames the volatility of sensation
in two ways: first, by defining it in terms of synchrony and treating it as
something that for the most part enables our perceptual competence; and,
more radically, by invoking a fundamental narcissism of all vision, which is
supposed to describe the mode of being of the flesh. The general reversibility
signaled by this portrayal of the sensible may indeed pertain to peaceful
and mundane experiences of otherness, but it neglects the many ways that
sensation can disable us, as well as the uncertainty, if not danger, involved
as our bodies move from one sensory environment to another. It does not
do justice to novel or extreme sensations, and it downplays the reality of
hostile or deadly environments. In a word, it mitigates the vulnerability
of our bodies.
As noted, Merleau-Ponty does recognize a layer of sensation that
operates below perception. As pre-perceptual it does not solicit dialogue
with the lived body. Instead, it remains out of sync with lived experience
and descends upon the body with a volatile proposition.227 MerleauPontys emphasis on body-world synchronization obscures the asymmetry
of intercorporeity at the level of sensation. This results from his desire to
assimilate sensing (le sentir) to the model of perception as communion,
which tends to regard otherness as generally hospitable. The thesis of
reversibility can only be advanced by ignoring the resistant alterity of the
material world, that is, at the peril of sensations volatility. This is why
neither the phenomenology of perception nor the ontology of the flesh can
adequately address the problems of embodiment and why the metaphysics
of bodies we find in Spinoza or Nietzsche,228 for instance, must also be
consulted in order to decipher the meaning of the body.
In giving an account of subjectivity and the immanence of the bodyworld relation Merleau-Ponty makes significant advances past Kant and
Husserl by developing concepts such as style, physiognomy, and habit.
These concepts allow him to speak coherently about perception and

110 Chapter 2

intersubjectivity as corporeal interactions that do not require the mediation


of an immaterial transcendental subject or disembodied mind. For this
reason, Merleau-Ponty can be regarded as a kind of materialist.229 This
ambition becomes even more apparent when he is writing about sensing, or
when he speaks of the carnality of the flesh in The Visible and the Invisible.
There his theory of embodied perception shifts its focus from the form of
perception to the material of perceptionthat is, sensation, or the sensible
as such. It is in his analysis of sensing that we can best see Merleau-Ponty
trying to secure the immanence of body and environment. His commitment
to immanence, however, is limited by his commitment to the primacy of
perception thesis and his methodological commitment to the principle
of intentionality. Both of these reintroduce a measure of distance, or
transcendence, into immanence. The limit of his materialism appears when
his theory of habit is contrasted with a neurophysiological account like that
given by James.
At this point and beyond I remain agnostic on the question of whether or
not Merleau-Ponty succeeds at establishing the materiality of the world and
making concrete the phenomenological subject. That is, it is not clear to me
that he has the resources to argue for the material reality of the body or its
world. What is clear is that in his attempt to do justice to the subjective and
objective sides of experience he tends to provide more substantial arguments
for the constructivist view of the subject. This is no reason to abandon his
path in favor of another, but it does call into question the degree to which
his corporeal descriptions distance him from the idealism of Husserlian
phenomenology.230

Chapter 3
Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence
The body is a strange thing, and when it is caught up
in an accident involving non-human forces, there is no
predicting the result.
Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

Merleau-Ponty begins his rehabilitation of sensation as early as


Phenomenology of Perception. After rejecting the modern view of sensation
as a discrete unit of content that must be assembled by the mind with
other units in order to build the objects of perception, he endorses a view
of sensation as sensing (a more appropriate translation of le sentir, sense
experience)231 which is adapted primarily from Erwin Strauss The Primary
World of Senses, on the one hand, and Husserls Ideas II, on the other. His
idea of sensing regards it as that vital communication with the world
which makes it present as a familiar setting of our life (PP 52-53/6465). He thus makes sensation central to his post-dualist perspective and
incorporates it into the primacy of perception thesis he champions. The
trouble is that he uses the concept in several, not always compatible, ways.
Its reference shifts throughout his texts. Although I will not catalogue every
nuance of le sentir or la sensation, I will adduce some of the divergent uses
of sensing in Merleau-Pontys texts. At the same time I will argue that

112 Chapter 3

one particular usage best captures the significance of sensing, namely, that
sensing is the bodys primary mode of engagement with otherness; that it
operates below the level of intentionality (and therefore perception); and
that it is even more basic than operative intentionality, which MerleauPonty identifies as the natural and antepredicative form of perception.
The operative form of intentionality negotiates the bodys first contact with
the phenomenal field, furnishing the text which our knowledge tries to
translate [via explicit judgments] into precise language (PP xviii/xiii). It is
tacit, unconscious. Like operative intentionality, sensing denotes a certain
imperceptible continuity between body and world, and it is fundamental to
Merleau-Pontys corporeal philosophy. While his privileging of perception
often elevates the perceiving subject above the perceived object, there is a
pervasive sense in which the dialectical relation between subject and object
is primary for him. He does not fully appreciate, however, the subjects
passivity in this dialectic.

A Healthy Ambiguity
It is notable that Merleau-Ponty recognizes a distinction between
sensation and perception. Indeed, it is this distinction that motivates the
present analysis of his work. Whereas perception is constantly striving
to pull objects out of their ambiguous presence and into workable relief
from their background, it is sensation that occasionally threatens to
break up the synchrony enjoyed by perceptual experience. To claim that
such interruptions are merely invitations to explore the undiscovered
meanings contained in the perceptual horizon, as Merleau-Ponty and his
commentators often do, is to miss the qualitative difference between an
experience that beckons our attention (perception) and one that directly
engagessometimes forciblyour bodies (sensation). This is not to
say that sensation marks the suffering of the body, but it is sometimes
that. He writes: With the problem of sense experience, we rediscover
that of association and passivity (PP 53/65). Perception, by contrast, is
never merely passive; nothing just happens to the lived body. That is,
there are no non-subjective perceptual events (PP 411/470). There are,
however, vital event[s] that occur unconsciously (Nature 174). Are these

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 113

events sensed, perceived, or both? Neither? It is not clear how they are
phenomenologically disclosed.
Sensation is often assimilated to perception in Merleau-Pontys texts.
When this happens there is a problematic reduction of the alterity of
sensation, as well as a glossing of the problem of passivity posed by sense
experience. Once again, a healthy ambiguity inhabits the border between
sensing and perceiving and Merleau-Ponty knows this, even exploits it. The
ambiguity makes it difficult to know whether he intended to differentiate
rigorously two ontologically distinct layers of experience, or if he desired
simply to demarcate two aspects of perception: the affective/passive and
the intellectual/active. My view is that he explicitly regards sensing as a
mode of perception, but in his explication of le sentir he also uncovers a
lost dimension of embodiment that cannot be readily recuperated by his
model of perception. The question now becomes, does Merleau-Ponty
attempt to incorporate the problem of sense experience into the problem
of perception? Or is there something about sense experience that proves
intractable for the phenomenology of perception? At the end of the day,
the ambiguity that motivates these questions proves irresolvable and yet,
precisely for this reason, worthy of interrogation.
Perhaps anticipating that a simple privileging of embodiment is not
sufficient to liberate phenomenology from transcendental idealism,
Merleau-Ponty suggests that it is the primary layer [couche originaire] of
sense experience [sentir] that allows perception to break with the critical
attitude (PP 238, 239/276). It is here that Merleau-Ponty most deliberately
departs from his idealist precursors in order to chart the existence of an
experience not prey to any kind of subjective synthesis. By beginning with
what is phenomenally sensible, he begins with an always already synthesized
form/content instead of positing a discrete form and content that are only
brought together by a unifying faculty.
I start from unified experience and from there acquire, in a
secondary way, consciousness of a unifying activity when,
taking up an analytical attitude, I break perception into
qualities and sensation, and when, in order to recapture on
the basis of these the object into which I was in the first place
blindly thrown, I am obliged to suppose an act of synthesis

114 Chapter 3

which is merely the counterpart of my analysis. (PP 276277/275; cf. PrP 25/69)
The classical approach to experience begins with abstractions, not with
what is given, and is responsible for the mistaken view that the subjects
role in experience is to provide the chaotic world of sensation with formal
order. Merleau-Pontys concern is to keep the subject always in touch with
the objective world and to demonstrate that this immanent relation is the
source of the content of perception and, by consequence, the form of the
world. This results in the view that the world does not achieve any explicit
form unless it is in dialogue with a human agent, which sounds like idealism.
The thing is inseparable from a person perceiving it, and can never be
actually in itself because its articulations are those of our very existence
(PP 320/370). Oftentimes the subject of perception is described by
Merleau-Ponty as immediately in touch with a semi-determinate, but never
amorphous, world of things always on its way to becoming more precisely
formed and therefore more hospitable to the bodys motor capacity.
This ambiguous and anonymous lifeworld provides the transcendental
conditions of perception (PP 365/418-419).232 More fundamental than the
lifeworld, I would suggest, is the realm of the sensible.

Anonymity
Both sensation and perception are occasionally designated as anonymous, as
when Merleau-Ponty writes that Sensation [sensation] can be anonymous
only because it is incomplete. Or: Perception is always in the mode of the
impersonal One (PP 216, 240/250, 277). These remarks have generated
consistent criticism from feminist philosophers who charge that by affirming
the reality of an anonymous body, Merleau-Ponty overlooks the role that
gender plays in the construction of experience. This criticism is justifiable,
but it does not apply to all of the senses of anonymous employed by
Merleau-Ponty. That is, it does not apply to the anonymity of sensation
insofar as sensation is something undergone by the body unconsciously or
pre-personally. Before explicating this level of sensation we need to see what
else is anonymous for Merleau-Ponty.

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 115

There are at least four sites of anonymity noted by Merleau-Ponty.


First, there is the pre-communicative stage in the psychogenesis of the
child, where his or her body is not yet distinguishable from the body of
another. Here there is not one individual over against another but rather
an anonymous collectivity, an undifferentiated group life (Child 119/33).
Second, there is the anonymity of habitual actions. It is true that a persons
habits inform their style, and thus their personal identity. But to the extent
that habits can be triggered unthinkingly or operate automatically, they
possess a certain anonymity. Third, Merleau-Ponty sometimes speaks of
the body in general, by which he means the organic body that lives as a
prepersonal cleaving to the general form of the world, as an anonymous and
general existence (PP 84/99). The idea of a generalthat is, gender-free,
race-free, ability-freebody beneath the personal is problematic because,
as Sullivan argues, it suggests a neutral ground upon which our bodies
communicate with other bodies. But, the objection runs, no such ground
exists, as our bodies are always individuated by habits and other historically
particular bodily behaviors. When I assume that the gestures of the other
are understandable because we share a common body, then I run the risk of
deciphering the other in terms of my corporeity (or the myth of a universal
body), rather than trying to achieve a site of communication that preserves
the others particularities.233
Johanna Oksala rejects the view that an anonymous body subtends the
intersubjective relation and that intersubjectivity is something that needs to
be achieved. She argues that the body-subject is historically generated all the
way down by language, tradition, and community.234 Even the anonymous
body is structured by environmental and social conditions. We have already
seen that Merleau-Ponty does not quite offer a fully historicized lived body,
that there are certain structural invariants that assume different modes
but are ontologically immutable. Or, as Butler argues with reference to his
treatment of sexuality, Merleau-Pontys appeal to the universal structures
of bodily existence prefigures the analysis of lived experience, investing the
body with an ahistorical structure which is in actuality profoundly historical
in origin.235 Whether or not he subscribes to an invariant general body, it
seems that Merleau-Ponty recognizes at least one anonymity that is radically
ahistorical: the anonymity of sensation, which remains forever anterior to

116 Chapter 3

our perception. This is the fourth site of anonymity, the transcendental


mode of sensation.

Modes of Sensation
There are two forms of sensation at play in Merleau-Pontys philosophy, one
that he criticizes (call it substantive sensation) and one that he endorses
(call it transitive sensation). The transitive form is conceived under two
registers: the phenomenological and the transcendental. It is implied in his
term sensing (sentir).236 Despite what has been said about the impurity of
Merleau-Pontys transcendental philosophy he does provide a concept of
sensation that is close to a pure a priori. Sensation, on this reading, serves as
a necessary, unconditioned condition of perceptual experience. But to argue
for the primacy of sensation in Merleau-Ponty, as I am here, it is necessary to
contrast the notion of sensing developed in the Sense Experience chapter
of Phenomenology of Perception with the classical conception of sensation (la
sensation) found in modern philosophy, which Merleau-Ponty critiques in
the opening chapter of his text.
The classical notion of sensation views sensations as data, as discrete
bits of material received from the external world and processed by the
mind into representations of that world. Merleau-Ponty rejects this view as
a fiction that betrays the evidence of experience, but he does not provide
a full-fledged alternative to the modern view. Likely fearing that he would
merely be replacing one abstraction for another, he elects instead to turn
to the evidence of lived experience, that is, the world of perception. His
positive thinking about sensation, then, is overshadowed by his critique of
sensation as a unit of experience. This is unfortunate because his own view
of sensing forms the basis of his theory of painting in essays like Czannes
Doubt and Eye and Mind, and it is crucial to understanding that theory.
Since he proclaims that any theory of painting is a metaphysics (EM
171/42), an understanding of his conception of sensing can reveal important
features of his metaphysics.
The classical view of sensation which Merleau-Ponty rejects gets
reinforced in everyday language when we speak of sensations as discrete
properties that cause us to see a book as red or to feel it as smooth, for
example. Red and smooth, we say, belong to the cover of this book and it is

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 117

these properties that affect, separately, our visual and tactile senses. Color is
received by the eyes; texture is apprehended by the fingertips. It is the book
that is red and smooth, and it is the task of the mind to reassemble these
stimuli into representations that correspond to the objects that produce
them. The problem with this view is that it places metaphysical prejudices
ahead of experience (PP 5/11) and results in a backward view of the nature
of things and how we know them, according to the phenomenologist. As
Taylor Carman puts it,
Nowhere in our perceptual awareness do we come across
discrete qualitative bits of experience fully abstracted from
the external, perceptually coherent environment. This is in
part just to say that perceptual experience is intentional, that
it is of something, whereas impressions, sensations, and sense
data are supposed to be the nonintentional stuff from which
the mind somehow extracts or constructs an experience of
something.237
We perceive things, not sensory units. Sensation, phenomenology teaches
us, is inferred from perception when we reflect on how it is that an object,
which is not completely our work, can transmit its qualities to us (PP
37/46). This classical (and quotidian) line of thinking assumes that objects
exist apart from us, fully formed with sharp boundaries and fixed properties.
It puts an objectivist metaphysics and nave realism ahead of the ambiguous
content of perception, which for Merleau-Ponty is the first and final arbiter
of what exists. Experience, writes Carman, rarely exhibits such sharply
defined features and no analysis of perception into discrete attitudes with
crisply defined contents intending isolated qualities can capture the peculiar
perceptual milieu, always at once a behavioral milieu, in which things
show up for us under meaningful aspects.238 When we attend to what we are
actually given, we never discover sensations. Instead, we find figures against
backgrounds and semi-determinate bodies which become more determinate
as perception catalogues their adumbrations. We find qualities that entice
and repel us, a sensible realm that perception infuses [imprgne] with
significance and style (PP 34/43).
What is required is a concept of sensation that does not reduce the
style of the sensible to the intentional life of the perceiving subject and

118 Chapter 3

does not completely subject the materiality of sensation, its affective


and imperceptible directive force, to the formality of the understanding
or practical orientation of the body. Shying away from the language of
sensation, Merleau-Ponty speaks of sensing as an experience in which we
are given not dead qualities, but active ones (PP 52/64). This is what I am
calling the shift from a substantive notion of sensation (dead qualities)
to a transitive one (active qualities). In Merleau-Pontys terms, sensing is
that vital communication with the world which makes it feel like home,
familiar and manageable. Sensing invests the quality with vital value,
grasping it first in its meaning for us, for that heavy mass which is our body,
whence it comes about that it always involves a reference to the body (PP
52-53/64-65). By interpreting it as communal Merleau-Ponty indicates
that sensing has active and passive dimensions. Sensing receives the world
and seizes it. By making sensing a corporeal event he puts the subject
immediately in touch with the object itself. But, of course, this is an impure
immediacy, mediated by the invariant structures that keep the body out of
step with the physical world.
The insistence that sensing is a bodily event at once active and passive
is taken over from Husserl and Erwin Straus, both of whom contest the
Aristotelian idea that sensing is analogous to a piece of wax receiving the
imprint of a seal. In addition to the sensations that fill our representations,
Husserls Ideas II describes the role that kinaesthetic sensations (kinaestheses)
play in the constitution of perception. Kinaestheses are the nonrepresentational sensations that guide motility. They denote ones inner
sense of the movements, tensions and possibilities of ones own Body, as
Alia Al-Saji puts it. As the body moves about its environment, negotiating its
contours and encountering other bodies, it responds almost automatically
to the directives and solicitations communicated to it. This practical knowhow, or competence, requires no mediating idea or judgment in order to be
executed, although it typically draws on established habits. As Al-Saji says,
there is no question of mimesis between kinaestheses and the qualities of
the perceived thing. It is rather by moving around things and tracing their
contours that kinaestheses make perception, as a concrete dynamic process,
possible.239 She concludes: Kinaesthetic sensations are hence a function

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 119

of my Bodys orientation in the world; they are my way of feeling the active
engagement of my Body with an outside.240
A similar view of the function of sensationas non-representational,
directiveis found in the work of Straus, a figure to whom Merleau-Pontys
Phenomenology appeals and whose analysis of sensing clearly influenced
the latters own position. In The Primary World of Senses Straus argues that
Descartes is responsible for the pervasive view that sensations are ideas,
merely mental events. As mere ideas of color, light, and the like, sensations
to Descartes lack any intrinsic contact with physical things. This relationship
is only inferred.241 On this view, the subject has sensations but does not
properly receive, let alone suffer, them. This is because the subject who
senses, for Descartes, is removed from time and becoming and receives
indifferently and unmoved.242 For Straus, this entails the elimination of the
life of sensing, by which he means its dialogical or communal character as
well as it affective force. He writes:
All sensory impressions are answers to questions; they are not
simply there in the way in which the physiological processes
underlying them are. We receive sensory impressions insofar as
we orient ourselves within our primary relationship with the
world by questing, seeking, expecting.243
Sensing and knowing are sharply distinguished in Strauss view. When we
know something, we grasp its meaning by suspending our vital commerce
and rendering an explicit judgment about the thing in question. This image
of cognition is analogous to what Merleau-Ponty calls intentionality of act.
Sensing, which is closer to Merleau-Pontys operative intentionality, is a
sympathetic experiencing. It is directed to the physiognomic characteristics
of the alluring and the frightening, says Straus. He continues, in language
echoed in Phenomenology of Perception,
When we grasp an expression, a communion is established
which seizes and changes us, which holds and confines
us; while in knowing, it is we who seize the world, who
appropriate it and detach ourselves from the particular,
attaining the full scope of an horizon which, ultimately, we
transcend.244

120 Chapter 3

We see Straus here appreciating the ambivalence of sensation, its ability to


provide us with appearances as well as their capacity to direct and transform
our corporeal identities. Moreover, we see him anticipating Todess
insistence that practice makes the practitioner. He even acknowledges the
disabling potential of sensation: it is just in sensations of pain that we feel
the world attacking and invading us.245 It is this last point that gets covered
over when the perceptual field is regarded primarily as a totality of tools
or equipment to be handled, or when the synchrony of body and world is
stressed too emphatically.
Strauss theory of sensing is useful here because it brings out the
material, vital dimension of sensing that is endorsed by Merleau-Ponty but
sometimes overshadowed by his commitment to describing perception in
instrumental terms. Straus demonstrates that the bodys sensibility is neither
limited to the passive reception of stimuli, nor is it the Kantian faculty
that projects a spatiotemporal grid into the sensible field. As Barbaras
says of Straus,
sensibility must be apprehended in the form of sensing,
understood as a specific mode of relation, as the
communication of the living being with a world. Sensing is
the mode according to which the living being as such is linked
with the world (and this is why it defines a common ground
between human and animal), it designates the living beings
originary mode of existence.246
Strauss view of the lived body is more naturalistic than what we usually
find in Merleau-Ponty. In his course notes on nature from the Collge de
France Merleau-Ponty does, however, adopt Strauss philosophical biology
of sensory communion.247 But it is not so much a biological conception of
human embodiment that Straus is interested in articulating. He is much
more concerned to draw a phenomenological distinction between the
affective and cognitive modes of existence, or what he calls the pathic
and gnostic modes. These modes correspond for Straus to sensing and
perceiving, respectively, and significantly are discontinuous with one another.248
Needless to say, Straus spends most of his energy unpacking the mode of
sensing, which Barbaras says corresponds, in fact, to a mode of immediate

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 121

communication, to a sympathy with the world that does not entail any
thematic dimension.249
Although he does not explicitly draw such a definitive distinction
between sensing and perceiving, Merleau-Ponty displays a marked interest
in the immediate, affective dimension of body-world contact. When
describing the transitive form of sensation, or sensation as communion, he
refers to it, as already noted, as the primary layer of perception. It would
be difficult for him to acknowledge that this layer is made up of nonintentional stuff, for this would contradict the doctrine that experience is
always of full-fledged things and, moreover, it would require him to give an
account of how perception, which is thoroughly intentional, can commune
with the non-intentional. Phenomenology could not provide such an
account. This may be why Merleau-Ponty holds back from drawing a sharp
distinction between sensing and perceiving. It is not always clear precisely
what their relation is for him. Is one is ontologically primary or are they
ontologically equiprimordial. One thing is clear, however: sensation is not
seen as just the inferred material of perception or the passive reception of
stimuli. It is a corporeal event undergone by the subject and constitutive of
the subjects integrity.
A purely physiological perspective cannot capture the phenomenon of
sensation because it is blind to the intentional dimension of sensing, as the
Phenomenology argues:
Sensation is intentional because I find that in the sensible
a certain rhythm of existence is put forwardabduction or
adductionand that, following up this hint, and stealing into
the form of existence which is thus suggested to me, I am
brought into relation with an external being, whether it be in
order to open myself to it or to shut myself off from it. (PP
212-213/247)
We glean from this passage that intentionality does not just denote the
fact that all sensory experience is directed toward an object. It suggests that
sensation involves electing to be taken into or removed from a situation.
Furthermore, there is here an overlapping of intentionality and affectivity. To
sense is to be directed by an external object, to be carried or assailed by its
rhythm. This is what it means for sensation to have a motor physiognomy

122 Chapter 3

or living significance (PP 209/242-243). If it is the case that the world


ceaselessly assails and beleaguers subjectivity as waves wash round a wreck
on the shore (PP 207/240), then we must regard the directives of sensation
as fundamental to the constitution and power (puissance) of subjectivity
(PP 210, 211/244, 245). We will see this theme recur in some of Levinass
writing on sensation and aesthetics.
Sensation is able to play a part in the arrangement of our subjectivity
because sensibility is internally related to our postural schema and the
practical objectives it means to accomplish. Lingis writes that the postural
schema is not simply a diagram of the way all the parts are equilibrated:
the body does not tend to a state of rest, but tends to maintain a state of
tension centered in a particular direction. This centering is directed by
the bodys posture, that is, the motile way the body centers and converges
all its receptor surfaces upon an objective.250 But we also cannot forget
that the body is itself a sensible being that continually schematizes itself,
makes a gait of its movement, a gesture of its displacement, makes of each
of its here-now particular configurations or positions into a posture or
attitude maintaining itself or varying itself continuously.251 This means
that the bodys rhythm remains always susceptible to the sympathetic
and antipathetic physiognomies of its environment. The way in which
environmental determinations constitute the bodys power (or freedom) is
addressed in my conclusion.
For the most part Merleau-Ponty regards sensing as an amicable affair,
the mutual completion of subject and object. He speaks of it, after Straus, as
a sympathetic relation with objects. Apart from the probing of my eye or
my hand, and before my body synchronizes with it, the sensible is nothing
but a vague beckoning [une sollicitation vague] (PP 214/248). Despite the
fact that consciousness is saturated with the sensible, Merleau-Ponty
insists that the sentient and the sensible do not stand in relation to each
other as two mutually external terms, and sensation is not an invasion of
the sentient by the sensible (PP 214, 215/247-248).252 The tireless influx
of sensory stimuli is no affront to the subjects sensibility, but rather an
invitation to mutual animation. Sensation under this rehabilitated model
is the primary mode of contact with being, neither completely active nor
passive, and the means by which bodies originally and ordinarily respond to

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 123

one another. Since sensation, for Merleau-Ponty, is not temporally prior to


perception, we might be better off calling it the edge of perception.

Painting the Body


Exactly what Merleau-Ponty means by sensing is perhaps best illustrated
when he is writing about painting. The painter, unlike the scientist, is
someone who defers his or her manipulation of objects and in this deference
returns to the soil of the sensible (EM 159, 160/9, 12). Bypassing the
practical aspect of things the painter tries to capture the birth of the thing
by depicting the self-organization of its qualities and its internal animation
(EM 182/71). This is possible, says Merleau-Ponty, because the painters
body is immersed in the visible and can be used by the visible to give
artistic expression to its many senses (EM 162/17-18). The painter swims in
a sensory ocean that directs his or her bodys affective and motor capacities
into aesthetic expression, but only if the painter is willing to lend his or her
body to the visible. The task of the painters body is to express the nascent
meaning of the visible. And this is precisely what painting is: it is the
transubstantiation (EM 162/16) of the sensible from the sensory field to
the canvas, a process which is made possible by the complicity of sensitive
subjects and sensible objects.
By situating the painter and painted on the same planethe visible
Merleau-Ponty is able to collapse the distinction between art and nature,
on the one hand, and the distinction between reality and representation, on
the other. These distinctions are replaced by a general economy of sensation
and expression, which is to say that the aesthetic dimension becomes for
Merleau-Ponty the means by which the material and imaginary realms
enter into communion. He cites Czanne in Czannes Doubt: Art is
a personal apperception, which I embody in sensations and which I ask
the understanding to organize into a painting (CD 13/22). To do this, the
painter must become an articulation of the sensible, the mechanics of which
are key to grasping Merleau-Pontys non-dualist, non-representational
theory of painting.
At the heart of his theory is the idea that the painter and the painted, the
seer and the seen are made of the same flesh. In Czannes Doubt there
is a flesh of nature, whereas in Eye and Mind (which is contemporaneous

124 Chapter 3

with The Visible and the Invisible) it is the visible/sensible that defines the
flesh. In both instances Merleau-Ponty wishes to demonstrate how subject
and object participate in a locus of reversibility253 which permits them to
work together in expressing the aesthetic dimension of being. In the role
of painter the subject catches onto the rhythm of the visible and allows it
to commandeer his or her bodys intentions and gestures. In this way the
visible world and the world of my motor projects are each total parts of
the same Being (EM 162/17). It is this overlapping of seer and seen, this
chiasm of visibility, that prohibits us from positing a distinction between the
interiority of the subject and the exteriority of the world. It is what makes
painting, at least in the case of Czanne, a non-representational act.
To understand the act of transubstantiation carried out by the painter,
the image to be rendered and the gestures required to render it must be
understood as continuous with each other. There cannot be an absolute
difference between the sensible and its artistic expression, for this would
violate Merleau-Pontys doctrine of the flesh, which maintains that seer and
seen are but two sides of a single visibility, indeed visibility as such (EM
163/19-20). As Michael B. Smith writes, Merleau-Pontys aesthetics of
painting is grounded in a metaphysics of vision, and vision, in turn, in an
ontological description of the body subject as a seeing seenness.254 Visual
representation is not carried out by the viewer; it is incited [excite] to
think by the body (EM 175/51). For the painter this thinking is embodied
in the painterly gesture itself. The unique contours of the visible spectacle
seize upon the painters body and, catching the painter in a circuit of
immanence, induces the body to adopt a physiognomy that expresses the
carnal formula of the sensations to be painted. This entire process is made
possible by the reversibility of visibility or, more generally, the duplicity
of sensing which is the animating principle of both body and world (EM
164/23, translation modified). We may wonder whether this duplicity is not
mediated, on the painters side, by reflection. But let us set this question
aside for now.
As Merleau-Pontys aesthetics makes clear, sensing occurs neither
inside nor outside the subject. It is a liminal event, originally responsible
for the style assumed by the painters body and, consequently, her
artistic style. Style is what orients and shapes in view of a revelation,

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 125

says de Waehlens.255 Before it becomes a defining trait of an artist, or


an object of reflection for the artist, it germinates at the surface of the
artists experience (ILVS 53/66).256 The exigency of style is therefore
compromised by over-intellectualized or mannered treatments of the
sensible. Intellectualism in philosophy and objectivism/realism in art both
eliminate the contingency of experience and thereby undercut its ambiguity
with abstractions (PP 38-39/48-49).
An individuals style is a singular manner of accessing the real or
negotiating its rhythms. These rhythms are first received, as directives of
sens, by sensibility. Secondarily they become habits, gestures, signature
techniques, or clichd expressions. The problem, for someone concerned
with portraying their immediacy, like Czanne, is to portray these directives
as they are delivered to sensibility to make visible how the world touches
us (CD 19/33)without imposing a form that is not given by the sensible
itself. The style of the painting should reflect the immanent negotiation
of subject and object that takes place at the level of viscous, equivocal
appearance, rather than at the level of pragmatic manipulation or cool
reflection (CD 17/30). The painting, writes de Waehlens, gives visible
presentation to what is not visible for the pragmatic eye, and is normally
possessed by the sense of contact: movement, volume, lightness, or mass,
as they obviously are presented in the work of Degas, for example.257
It is Czannes painting, argues Merleau-Ponty, which is exemplary in its
attempt to render for perception the chaos of sensations (CD 13/22). This
gives us more reason to think that Merleau-Ponty understands sensation
as something other than perception, since chaos is certainly not of a piece
with perceptual life. Czannes work is populated by figures which seem
to be on the verge of breaking down or losing their form; or, on their way
to metamorphosing into altogether different figures. Chaos lurks within
them. They attempt to bring to appearance what Merleau-Ponty refers to
as the unstable, and alien element of natural perception (PP 225/260).
Czanne, he writes, wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth
of order through spontaneous organization (CD 13/23). If this organization
is to be truly spontaneous, not mediated by the artifices of technique or
idealization, then Czanne would have to develop a style that matches the
immediacy of his theme: the emergent sensory order, or the world as it

126 Chapter 3

acquires its aesthetic contours. In short, he would need to compose the


chaos of sensation. Merleau-Ponty writes:
The outline should therefore be a result of the colors if the
world is to be given its true density. For the world is a mass
without gaps, a system of colors across which the receding
perspective, the outlines, angles, and curves are inscribed like
lines of force; the spatial structure vibrates as it is formed.
(CD 15/25-26)
This conception of spatiality is antithetical to Kants in that it makes
spatial organization a product of the sensory manifold, thereby locating the
principle of animation in the matter, rather than the form, of perception.258
What allows the painter to be animated by the sensible? Like his or
her chosen subject, the painter possesses a physiognomy that can adapt
to the physiognomy or motif of still-life objects, landscapes, the faces of
portraiture (CD 17/29). The motif, which is no more than a combination
of colors, provides the body of the artist with directives that initiate the
creative event, an event which grips [the] body, and this grip circumscribes
the area of significance [sens] to which it has reference (CD 16/27;
PP 235/272). Art is not first and foremost an act of symbolism. It is an
affective reconfiguration engendered by the bodys sensibility. The artists
body is an object which is sensitive to all the rest, which reverberates to
all sounds, vibrates to all colors, and provides words [or lines, colors] with
their primordial significance through the way in which it receives them
(PP 236/273).
Merleau-Pontys discussion of Czanne suggests a conceptual, but
perhaps not real, distinction between sensation and perception. This is
discernible in his remark that Czanne breaks with the Impressionists by
rejecting the latters attempts to capture, in the painting, the very way in
which objects strike our eyes and attack our senses. This attack, he says
vaguely, occurs at the level of instantaneous perception and appears as
the chaos of sensations invoked above (CD 11/19). The Phenomenology
of Perception likewise implies that sensation is part of perception, and yet
distinguishable from what is ordinarily perceivedwhole, medium-sized
graspable objects projected against a background. Most tellingly, he writes:
What is called sensation is only the most rudimentary of perceptions, and,

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 127

as a modality of existence, it is no more separable than any other perception


from a background which is in fact the world (PP 241/279). In a manner
different from Straus, Merleau-Ponty finds continuity between sensation
and perception because he wants to avoid making the latter the form
and the former the matter of experience. Because no phenomenological
distinction exists for him, no real distinction exists.

The Diachrony of Sensation


Despite his allegiance to the thesis that all consciousness is both directed
toward some object and always projected against a horizon of meaning,
Merleau-Ponty does suggest that a non-intentional form of sensing
exists. This he describes as forever anterior to perception, a provocative
formulation that opens a distinction between sensing and perception, and
points to an originary, pre-phenomenological encounter with the sensible,
one that belongs to the prehistory of perception. When Merleau-Ponty
speaks of the anonymity of the body, it seems to me that it is this encounter
he intends to highlight, and not the general or neuter form of the body.
Moreover, his view of sensibility situates sensing on a transcendental
level, or in a kind of original past, a past which has never been present
(PP 242/280). It is into this original past that perception must reach in
order to apprehend what there is to perceive. Or rather, perception must
nourish itself on the sensations that make up its irretrievable past. Without
sensation, consciousness cannot survive. This is because, as Al-Saji argues,
perception lags behind sensibilityso that consciousness and being do not
coincide, despite Merleau-Pontys claim in the Temporality chapter [of
Phenomenology of Perception].259
There is, then, more than a conceptual distinction to be drawn between
perception and sensation. The case can be made that the pre-personality
of sensation should take ontological precedence over the personality of
perception in Merleau-Pontys philosophy, although, as we have seen,
he usually folds these disparate experiences into the image of perception
as communion, as sentir. There is a fundamental diachrony, or noncoincidence, at the heart of perception that breaks up its synchronization
with the world. This diachrony is introduced by sensation. Levinas takes
up this point and uses it, like Deleuze, against Merleau-Ponty. Diachrony

128 Chapter 3

is the work of sensation, the primary layer of sense experience which at


once grounds perception and assures its opacity and non-coincidence, in
Al-Sajis terms.260 Upon this shifting ground lie at least three other layers
which constitute the perceptual experience. Merleau-Ponty outlines these in
a discussion of hearing.
The different layers of sound are only identifiable once the unified
experience of listening, say, to a piece of music is analyzed by reflection.
After making this phenomenological point Merleau-Ponty ventures to
speculate about the multidimensional sensation of sound itself: there is
an objective sound which reverberates outside me in the instrument, an
atmospheric sound which is between the object and my body, a sound which
vibrates in me as if I had become the flute or the clock; and, finally, a last
stage in which the acoustic element disappears and becomes the highly
precise experience of a change permeating my whole body (PP 227/263).
Merleau-Ponty here describes the liminal nature of sensationit is between
the object and my bodyas well as its capacity to directly reconfigure the
body. This reconfiguration might manifest itself in dance, which is arguably
the most obvious example of a change permeating my whole body or the
body communing with its auditory environment. Given Merleau-Pontys
description, however, we should hesitate to posit dance as a primary or
instantaneous reconfiguration. What comes first is the objective sound
which reverberates outside me in the instrument. Physically, a sound
wave. This reverberation reaches us in a highly complex situation, against
a background of noise and silence, and in principle could drown out this
background by reaching an oppressively loud volume. That is, the sound is
potentially hostile to the body and the bodys potential communion with
the aural environment. This potential resides in the fact that sensations
liminality places it at the threshold of the world as perceived. Sensation
reverberates whether anyone is there to perceive it or not; it is not beholden
to the mechanics of perception.
On average we do not experience the pure reverberation of an
instrument outside of an aural context, and yet Merleau-Ponty says that
this objective sound occurs in the instrument rather than in our ears.
This compels us to think of our perception of sound as delayed. Our ears
arrive late to the event of sound. This is because we must learn to perceive

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 129

according to Merleau-Ponty, says Al-Saji.261 The world possesses rhythms


that solicit synchronization from our bodies; it challenges us with dissonant
rhythms; it meets our bodies groping with inconvenient designs and
incapacitating sounds. Some of these we can catch onto, others not. Our
sensory environment is not always ergonomically advantageous: it contains
sensations that are alien and unstable, but whose meaning nevertheless
saturates us (PP 214, 215/248, 249). Perception converts the elements of
the sensory encounter into recognizable and representable identities and
effects a transformation of the inherent ambiguity and intertwining of the
sensorya transformation that the sensory suggests but as a result of which
it comes to be overlaid and forgotten qua sensory life.262 On this reading,
sensory life becomes the virtual dimension of perceptual life.
Always beyond the reach of perception, but nevertheless serving as the
unreflective fund that provides it with phenomenal content, the sensory
life of the body reveals itself as the anonymous, objective ground of any
actual perception (PP 242/280). In Al-Sajis words,
Perception may be a prospective actualization, but it is
experienced as the discovery of what was always already
there. It is this anteriority that makes objects appear real to
usour experience of their presence being given through
their inexhaustibility and alterity. This inexhaustibility is due
to the coexistence and non-coincidence of rhythms in sensory
life, a life which at once constitutes the ground of perceptual
experience while being irreducible to perceptual form. What
allows the experience of anteriority to be more than an illusion
for Merleau-Ponty is that it relies on, and holds the trace of, a
more original delaythat of sensory life as forever past with
respect to perception.263
It is not so much that Merleau-Ponty subscribes to the view that there is an
anonymous body subtending the historically and culturally inscribed body,
but that he affirms a carnal sensibility whose resources cannot be exhausted
by an individuals consciousness or singular perceptual experience.
Sensibility is basic to the pre-personal identity of the body and constitutive
of an unconscious dimension of subjectivity. Put otherwise, only a
portion of what the lived body senses makes its way into perception, and

130 Chapter 3

even less becomes the object of reflection. When Merleau-Ponty writes that
Perception is always in the mode of the impersonal One, we must take
this to mean that perception is at every moment the renewal of the synthetic
act which reaches into the past while projecting into the future in its attempt
to fix the object of perception before us.264 This entails that perception is
an ever-recurrent failure [chec perptuel] to hold onto what is given in
sensation (PP 240/277).
Perception apprehends a phenomenal field which is never presented in
any other way than integrated into a configuration and already patterned
[mise en forme] (PP 159/186). Following Gestalt principles Merleau-Ponty
holds that no sense experience happens outside of the horizon subtended
by my personal intentional arc and the historical/cultural horizon in which
I am always situated. This phenomenal field, however, cannot be identical
to the field engaged immediately by the senses, for the latter is marked by a
singularity which resists entry into the intentional horizon. Sensibility, then,
remains bound to a pre-personal field wherein each sensation, being strictly
speaking, the first, last and only one of its kind, is a birth and a death of the
body that receives it. Moreover,
the subject who experiences it begins and ends with it, and
as he can neither precede nor survive himself, sensation
necessarily appears to itself in a setting of generality, its origin
anterior to myself, it arises from sensibility which has preceded
it and which will outlive it, just as my birth and death
belong to a natality and a mortality which are anonymous.
(PP 216/250)
The carnality of the subject inhabits two distinct spheres, the practicalpersonal, on the one hand, and the sensible-impersonal, on the other. They
never operate in isolation from each other, and this fact calls into question
the primacy of perception and the primacy of body-world synchrony.
The tension between the personal and impersonal body is palpable in
Merleau-Pontys reluctance to disengage sensation from perception and
allow the former to devolve into the formless data of the empiricists or the
pure sensory manifold of Kant. This is why sensation appears sometimes as
a rudimentary form of perception (thus guaranteeing perceptions inherent
form) and at other times as the transcendental condition of perception

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 131

(which ensures Merleau-Pontys anti-idealist credentials). In the last


analysis Merleau-Ponty wants to maintain the primacy of perception while
at the same time championing the immediacy of sensing which is clearly
endorsed in his analysis of Czannes painting and its ability to express
the dialogue of physiognomies that is the body-world relation. If there is a
truly anonymous and pre-perceptual form of sensing acknowledged in the
Phenomenology, then there is reason to suggest that the sensations undergone
by the bodys organs point to a transcendental field that is better depicted
by the Impressionists, however speculative or non-phenomenological their
aesthetic might be.
Merleau-Ponty tells us that Czanne breaks with the Impressionists over
their impossible desire to portray how objects strike our senses (CD 1114/19-23). The Impressionists are wont to paint what would be the pure a
priori of perception, that is, sensation, whereas Czannes painting exhibits
sensible nature as it emerges into an organized form. On this reading, the
Impressionists would be the painters of a non-thetic, pre-objective, and
pre-conscious experience that depicts sensation as a private phenomenon
(PP 242/279). It is this private sphere that is most problematic from
the perspective of a perception which is, according to The Primacy of
Perception, fundamentally intersubjective (PrP 17-18, 26-27/52, 70-71). As
Merleau-Ponty writes in The Philosopher and His Shadow:
The fact is that sensible being, which is announced to me in
my most strictly private life, summons up within that life all
other corporeality. It is the being which reaches me in my most
secret parts, but which I also reach in its brute or untamed
state, in an absolute of presence which holds the secret of the
world, others, and what is true. (Shadow 171/215)
Sensation, then, becomes problematic because it harbors a form of
solipsism, a view which Merleau-Ponty ardently resists. The touch
of sensation opens the body to the world of objects, others, and
communication. But in itself it cannot be accessed, represented, or
articulated. The problem of solipsism raised by the aesthesiological is
resolvable only when it is assimilated to perception, for perception, writes
Merleau-Ponty, is never a matter of anything but co-perception. I see
that this man over there sees, as I touch my left hand while it is touching

132 Chapter 3

my right (Shadow 170/215). As he says elsewhere, perception is always


already reversible. If there is solipsism, then it must be wrested from the
intersubjective sphere and therefore no solipsism at all.
Merleau-Pontys entire critique of sensation derives from his observation
that we do not really encounter much of what the classical empiricists and
rationalists say we do. For the most part he is right: we do not perceive
sense impressions or sense data. We perceive things. Against classical
theory he maintains that we only arrive at the imperceptible through
analysis, which must necessarily begin with the perceptible. This may be
true phenomenologically, but it does not foreclose the possibility that,
ontologically speaking, perception is a derivative experience, subtended by a
more rudimentary experience of embodiment. Merleau-Ponty acknowledges
the existence of imperceptible encounters with things, which is why I think
the realist strand of his analysis of sensing supports the thesiseven if he
does not advance it himselfthat perception derives from the transitive
form of sensation. When he speaks of the sound reverberating in the
instrument before it reaches the ears of the listener, he acknowledges the
primacy of an aesthetic atmosphere that is anterior to perception. Here
resides the anonymous sensory experience that saturates our bodies and
cannot be recuperated by the subject-object dialogue. The Visible and the
Invisibles concept of flesh develops this anonymous sensibility into a general
theory of being.

Reversible Bodies
The flesh (la chair) radicalizes insights from the Phenomenology by replacing
the latters residual subject-object dualism with a monistic account of the
sensible. In the early text our bodies and the bodies of others (human
and nonhuman) are said only to achieve full expression through the coconstitutive dialogue of perception. This dialogue is made possible, explains
The Visible and the Invisible, because both subject and object belong to a
common element, the sensible as such, or the flesh. It is this element that
brings together while at the same time separating the poles of perception:
the thickness of flesh between seer and the thing is constitutive for the
thing of its visibility as for the seer of his corporeity (VI 135/178). The
separation of bodies, then, is derivative of the fundamental narcissism

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 133

at the heart of the sensible. In The Visible and the Invisible it is no longer
perception that gives birth to discrete objects, but the so-called dehiscence
(cart) of the flesh. Dehiscence is the name Merleau-Ponty uses to describe
the fission of the sensible into sentient body and sensible world; it denotes
the coiling back or enfolding of being performed in sensing:
[The flesh] is the coiling over of the visible upon the seeing
body, of the tangible upon the touching body, which is attested
in particular when the body sees itself, touches itself seeing
and touching the things, such that, simultaneously, as tangible
it descends among them, as touching it dominates them all
and draws this relationship and even this double relationship
from itself, by dehiscence or fission of its own mass. (VI
146/191-192)
At bottom it is the dehiscence of flesh that constitutes my body as an
individual that senses and gains it the necessary distance from what is
perceived (VI 140/185). Since individuation results from the separation
(cart) of the flesh, understood as a single element, it entails a kind of
reversibility between bodies. At the crossing where reversibility occurs,
perception is born (VI 154/202).
By reversible Merleau-Ponty means that at any moment the one who
sees can become the one seen, or the one who touches can become the
touched. The possibility of a passive body becoming active or an active body
becoming passive is immanent to embodiment as such. He holds that the
reversibility of the sensible is analogous to what happens when I touch my
left hand with my right. This is the narcissistic element of the flesh: the seer
and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees
and which is seen (VI 139/183). Sensing is here attributed not to individual
subjects who exist apart from their worlds, but to the flesh as a substance
that divides itself into sensible and sentient beings. This is the primary
dualism of The Visible and the Invisible, it seems to me. The Phenomenologys
anthropocentric dualism has been mitigated here, but at the same time
a new dualism, embedded in the rhetoric of chiasmus, arises. While
intended as a figure that could overcome the Phenomenologys undesirable
dualism (as identified by its author), the chiasmus injects a new duality into
the heart of Merleau-Pontys monism of the flesh. Consequently, the figure

134 Chapter 3

of the chiasmus does not solve anything, because in order to work, both
terms [subject and object, seer and seen] must be preserved even as they are
cancelled at another level.265 The sensible-sentient chiasmus is what signals
the dualism troublingor short-circuiting, however you want to see itthe
monistic ontology of The Visible and the Invisible.
What remains unclear is how the flesh becomes sentient in the first place,
why some beings achieve sentience while others remain merely sensible.
For if the body is a thing among things, it is so in a stronger and deeper
sense than they, Merleau-Ponty asserts (VI 137/181). One way to overcome
the sensing-sensed dualism is by broadening the scope of sentience to
include any entity that can receive sensory stimulation. If stimulation is
regarded as an objective event, and is not confined to the interior life of
humans or other living animals, then we can begin to speak of the sensations
experienced by inanimate objects. This is one way to abolish The Visible
and the Invisibles dualistic conception of the sensible, but one which also
commits us to a new, perhaps Whiteheadian, metaphysics of sensation.
Merleau-Ponty explicitly points out that the presumed reversibility
of sensible and sentient is always imminent, but never accomplished (VI
147/194). In other words, my left and right hands cannot both be touching
each other at the same time; one of the pair must play the role of passive
object while the other actively senses it. More generally, sentient/subjective
and sensible/objective never fully synchronize because reversibility has an
asynchronous core. It must be stressed that the impossible coincidence at
the center of reversibility is, in part, a product of the analogy of self-touching
chosen by Merleau-Ponty. The asynchrony of reversibility is therefore a
consequence of his analogy to self-reflexive behavior and does not seem to
apply to what we typically consider an intercorporeal relation. Nor does it
apply universally to sensing or tactility.266
What if the always deferred synchrony of reversibility is not like
attempting to catch sight of ones own shadow by quickly turning around?
Consider how smelling, tasting, and hearing do not bear the kind of
symmetry necessary for reversibility. Sure, I can be smeller or smelled, but
the scent that invades my nose is in no position to take in my scent. The
same could be said of a taste or sound. These sensations are more invasive
than the tactile and give us a good idea of the basically irreversible or

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 135

dissymmetrical nature of sensing. Something like a handshake, by contrast,


appears to offer a better analogy for reversibility.267 But even the handshake
proves irreversibleperhaps it is exemplarily irreversiblesince the strength
and delicacy of the persons shaking will most likely be disproportionate, a
matter of unequal force. This is why Beata Stawarska argues, rightly I think,
that the concept of flesh performs a massive reduction of the specifically
intersubjective experience of the body manifest in an encounter with another
embodied person to the corporeal dynamic operative within the body
proper.268 Self-touching offers us a helpful image of reflection, but not
entirely an accurate account of the intercorporeal encounter.
In her work on Merleau-Ponty and political philosophy Diana Coole
responds to Merleau-Pontys critics, chiefly Levinas, who claim that the
metaphor of the handshake is ethically defective because it privileges
continuity over discontinuity, sameness over difference. She writes,
Merleau-Ponty is surely using the handshake to advance an ontological
rather than an ethical claim and he does so in order to disclose the
very possibility of ethical (and political) relations.269 If Coole is right,
and Levinass charge holds, then Merleau-Ponty has misread a basic
(ontological) difference at the heart of intercorporeity. But Merleau-Ponty
does not see the handshake as an event of congruity, but one of cart, or
separation, and so Levinass criticism falters.270 Merleau-Ponty retains the
language of reversibility and is thereby left to account for the discontinuous
continuity between the bodies exchanging the handshake. Is this continuity
merely phenomenal? If not, what is the metaphysical mechanism of its cart?
His life cut short, Merleau-Ponty never had time to provide an adequate
reply to these questions.
The experience of the handshake illustrates how intercorporeal touching
is fundamentally different from self-touching. The handshake exhibits
an exchange of sensations that is not present in the case of self-touching.
When I shift my attention and convert my touched hand into the hand
doing the touching, as in the case of self-touching, there is no exchange
of sensation, but rather a shift in attention, a reversal of intentionality. As
Stawarska writes, What distinguishes the intercorporeal relation from
the intracorporeal one is that the passivity of my hand touched by the
otherunlike the passivity of my hand that I touchcannot reverse into

136 Chapter 3

an activity (of touching) for me, even though I can respond to the other
touching me by touching them in turn.271 The idea that two bodies stand
in a relation of reversibility assumes that any passive relation is potentially
convertible into an active relation, even if this reversal is impossible, as in
cases of domination, oppression, torture, or murder.272 The supposition
of reversibility effectively neglects a fundamental feature of violence:
the inequality of the sensations exchanged. This is precisely what makes
intercorporeity irreversible.

The Reality of Violence


Rewriting the Cartesian cogito, Merleau-Ponty argues that the subject
is an I can [je peux] before it is an I think (PP 137/160). But this
formulation is only partially true. Is the subject not equally an I cant,
a perpetually constrained actor whose abilities cannot be privileged over
its inabilities? The bodys orientation is always a mixture of abilities and
disabilities, and some orientations, as Ahmed and Fanon suggest, are more
accommodating than others. Ahmed writes:
If classical phenomenology is about motility, expressed
in the hopefulness of the utterance I can, Fanons
phenomenology of the black body would be better described
in terms of the bodily and social experience of restriction,
uncertainty and blockage, or perhaps even in terms of the
despair of the utterance I cannot. To be black in the
white world is to turn back towards itself, to become an
object, which means not only not being extended by the
contours of the world, but being diminished as an effect of the
bodily extensions of others.273
Nowhere is corporeal constraint more evident than in the threatened or
disabled body. To say nothing, of course, of the corpse. If the subject,
on Merleau-Pontys model, is to be identified with the body in all of its
materiality (not just the body insofar as it is animated by an intentional
consciousness or mind, that is, the lived body), then each of the bodys
manifestations must be taken into consideration when embodied subjectivity
is in question. Furthermore, the intercorporeal relation cannot just be the

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 137

site where perception is born. It must also serve as the site where perception
disintegrates or vanishes altogether.
Merleau-Ponty does not completely neglect the reality of violence,
however. Coole has shown that he acknowledges its reality in his political
studies, refusing to reduce it to a metaphor. As she writes, His emphasis
on the body brings home the vulnerability and mortality of the flesh. His
actors find themselves suspended between the violence of the visceral
and the potential violence of the structural, where even peaceful aims can
have violent repercussions.274 It is true that he recognizes the inherent
vulnerability of the body in the face of the other. Not unlike Sartre, who
theorizes the gaze of the other as an instrument of objectification or seizure,
Merleau-Ponty considers how the presence of the other entails a conflict of
interpretations where the truth of the object is at stake, where the bodys
hold on the world is contested by others (PrP 18/53). Just like me, the other
fixes his or her grip on objects and appropriates them in the system of holds
that make up his or her own practical horizon. My own body, too, can be
seized by perception, as Sartre, Fanon, Yancy and others have demonstrated.
Merleau-Ponty speaks of a passive vision as in the case of a dazzling
light, wherein perception is rendered incapable of making sense of what
is seen (PP 315/364). He recognizes the impact of pain and fatigue on our
capacity for action (PP 441/504; SB 189/204). Ultimately, he defines the
freedom of the body negatively as a tolerance of institutional and physical
forces, thus eschewing the ideal of a pure subject who remains invulnerable
to material forces (PP 454/518). What Merleau-Ponty does not provide us
with is an ontological explanation for how real violence is possible, how the
reversibility of the flesh is suspended, violated, or overridden. Unfortunately,
it is not enough just to emphasize that subjectivity is embodied or that pain
occurs in fact.
In order accurately to portray intercorporeal encounters, and the violent
in particular, a robust notion of irreversibility or alterity must be provided.
This does not mean that reciprocity between bodies should be deemed
impossible (which is implied in Levinass ontology, as we will see in the
next chapter). What we need is a model that acknowledges the distance
between bodies, but also enables them to exchange a common currency
and participate in a common experiential economy. I suggest we consider

138 Chapter 3

sensation as providing the currency and the aesthetic as the common


economy. To be fair, I think Merleau-Ponty notices, but does not pursue,
this possibility. It is present in his recognition of sensation as the past that
never presents itself to perception; it is there in his acknowledgement of the
affective quality of sensing; and it is implied in his ontology of the flesh (PP
53/65). These moments of divergence and diachrony are where MerleauPonty troubles the happy alliance of body and world while simultaneously
recognizing an element shared by embodied beings. The dehiscence of
the flesh, or what Hass calls the constitutive difference in the fabric of
experience, offers another moment of divergence.275 But the mechanics of
the involution of the sensiblehow the flesh generates individual bodies
remains a metaphysical mystery for phenomenology. In Phenomenology of
Perception it is temporality that drives the dehiscence of being, but time is
conceived there anthropocentrically as born of my relation with things
(PP 412, 426/471, 487, translation modified). Merleau-Pontys later
philosophy does not provide us with a non-anthropocentric conception of
time or a metaphysical explanation of dehiscence or an adequate account
of how bodies individuate themselves from the singular flesh of being, and
eventually get destroyed.276 This is not a failure of Merleau-Ponty, but work
he left for us to accomplish.
The gap (is it real or apparent?) between entities never reaches closure;
reversibility is always deferred. Nevertheless, Merleau-Pontys analyses
most often suggest the possibility of convergence: the subject is always on
the way to a better understanding of its object; the left hand is always on
the verge of touching instead of being touched; perception is perpetually
on its way to a maximally clear expression.277 His faith in reversibility, once
again, effectively misrepresents the intercorporeal relation by attenuating the
volatility introduced by the transcendence of the other qua sensible. Levinas
would say that Merleau-Pontys ontology ultimately reduces the other to the
same and that reversibility denotes a relation whose terms are indifferently
read from left to right and from right to left and which has been reduced to
a simple correlation (TI 35/5).
Levinass charge is a bit hyperbolic in the case of Merleau-Ponty since
the latters treatment of intersubjectivity cannot be reduced to a simple
self-other duality and, indeed, actively strives to overcome such a reduction.

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 139

He does, however, tend to subordinate what Levinas calls the enigma of


sensation-feeling [lnigme sensation-sentiment] to the competent grasp
[prise] of perception.278 As Merleau-Ponty writes,
my body, as the system of holds on the world, founds the
unity of the objects which I perceive, in the same way the
body of the other tears itself away from being one of my
phenomena, offers me the task of true communication, and
confers on my objects the new dimension of intersubjective
being or, in other words, of objectivity. (PrP 18/53)
The world is not first what eludes my grasp, but what offers me things to
grab; the other is not what threatens my subjectivity, but what offers to
communicate with me. Others and objects offer possibilities for being and
doing because they belong to the phenomenal field open before me and
essentially synchronized with my bodys practical horizon. Between seeing
body and seen other there is an intimacy as close as between the sea and
the strand (VI 130-131/173).279
The ideal of reversibility fails to notice that sensation, even in MerleauPontys own terms, is precisely what cannot become phenomenal if
phenomenality is the mode of expression proper to perception. Sensation
remains forever out of step with the unfolding of perception; it is the dark
side of visibility and ideality, what gives birth to perception and, perhaps,
what accounts for its disintegration.

Carnal Sensibility
If we wish to talk about the centrality of the body, then it is necessary to
attend to every aspect of its environmental sensitivity, the physiological as
well as the phenomenal, insofar as this sensitivity gives rise to the corporeal
structures that inform the contours of our perceptual and practical
engagements. A neglect of the autonomy of sensation, by which I mean the
sensible events which take place below the level of intentional consciousness
and which remain unstable, and alien,280 can only hinder a philosophy that
seeks to overcome the conceit of an idealism which refuses to recognize the
corporeal dimension of subjectivity, freedom, and responsibility. Regardless
of whether sensation is a viable phenomenological concept, it is necessary

140 Chapter 3

to provide a complete picture of embodiment. And we risk misconception


when we overemphasize the constitutive activity of the subject, or when we
downplay its susceptibility, incompetence, disintegration, and mechanical or
autonomic responses.281
Even though his philosophy of the body is sensitive to the constitutive
function of the aesthetic dimension, Merleau-Pontys privileging of
perception entails a misrepresentation of how the bodys identity is informed
and sculpted by its aesthetic environment. He endorses the dialogical
notion of aesthetic identity offered by Czanne. Though instructive, this
view does not do justice to the irreversibility of sensation. The pixelated
images of the Impressionists, as already suggested, may offer us a better
representation. Impressionism gives something like a snapshot of sensation;
it captures the sensory event which, strictly speaking, is the first, last and
only one of its kind, is a birth and death. These images ring false from a
phenomenological perspective, but only because phenomenology distrusts
and eschews speculation, preferring to derive its ontology from what is given
to experience. For a philosopher like Merleau-Ponty and unlike, say, Hume
the chaos of sensation can only be hypothesized from the more coherent
world of perception. This is why he favors Czanne over the Impressionists.
But once again, Czanne is a painter of reversibility, of sensing taken as an
amicable dialogue. He jettisons the immediacy of sensation in favor of the
world figured, or at least figurable.
One of the problems left here is to theorize the discontinuity between
bodies without succumbing to the allure of absolute transcendence, as
Levinas does, and without casting intercorporeity as purely continuous.
To be sure, failure to concede the continuity or immanence of the
intercorporeal realm results in a failure to see that sensory demands are
communicated directly to the subject by the aesthetic environment. An
account of the environments immanent aesthetic directives is crucial to
understanding the emergence of the bodys competence and integrity. This is
because there are provocations issued by the environment that the body must
respond to in order to effectively adapt, ways in which the body is determined
by its sensory milieu. These determinants are therefore more than optional
solicitations: they are imperatives.282 Sometimes these provocations are
pleasurable, sometimes they are painful or even excruciating. They can end

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 141

in bodily obliteration, which is an extreme form of incompetence but a


form of responsiveness nonetheless. Merleau-Ponty appreciates this to some
degree, but he consistently downplays the imperceptible quality of sensation,
its objective power, and as a result pathologizes the vulnerability of the body.
The tension between sensation and perception, which is clearly evinced in
excessive or limit situations that threaten the coherence of perception and
the organizational capacity of the bodys schemata, is passed over in favor of
a more sympathetic reciprocity or the ideal of maximum clarity/optimum
balance in perception (PP 318/367).283
Merleau-Pontys philosophy has the virtue of being grounded in the
carnality of existence, and it does so without submitting to physicalism.
Indeed, the depth of his phenomenological descriptions are borne of
the concrete practices of the self as it engages other bodies, both human
and nonhuman. The ontogenetic narrative Merleau-Ponty tells about the
subjects embodiment, which is first and foremost a story of the bodys
anonymity and passivity, is grounded in the sensitivity of the body, or what
we could call its carnal sensibility. This sensibility is at work in the sensuous
communion of subject and object in Phenomenology of Perception; it is at
the heart of The Visible and the Invisibles notions of flesh, chiasm, and cart;
and it is crucial to the psychogenesis of the child in The Childs Relations
with Others as well as his analyses of Czannes theory of painting. In
short, there is for me an inscrutable ambivalence at the heart of MerleauPontys work. The problem we are left with is how to disengage the idea of
carnal sensibility, which anonymously produces the bodys organizational
capacity, from the intentional structure of perception and the synchronic
ontology of the flesh. Only after the diachrony of sensibility is disengaged
from perception can we understand both the passivity of the body and its
non-intentional responsiveness to sensations, that is, its obedience to the
immanent directives embedded in the aesthetic environment.

Traces of Ambiguity
Reading Merleau-Ponty it is easy to get the impression that the body
operates as a tool or prosthesis of consciousness, rather than a substitute
for the Cartesian ego. This is because he sometimes speaks of perception
and consciousness as though they were not functions of the body:

142 Chapter 3

Consciousness is being-towards-the-thing through the intermediary of


the body (PP 138-139/161). In his more radical formulations we are
our bodies, nothing more. Establishing a non-reductive version of this
identification of self and body is the most promising prospect of working
through Merleau-Pontys ontology.
To overcome modern dualism it is necessary that Merleau-Ponty
collapse consciousness and body. If we are to avoid conceiving the body as
merely a vessel for the mind or consciousness or perception, there cannot
be any mysterious elements of subjectivity or suspicious unbridgeable gaps
between subject and world. This means emptying absolute transcendence
from ontology, something Merleau-Ponty only begins to accomplish in
his unfinished later work. The challenge is formulated by Deleuze in Pure
Immanence when he says that consciousness becomes a fact only when a
subject is produced at the same time as its object, both being outside the
field and appearing as transcendents.284 In other words, a truly immanent
ontology, like the one promised by the primacy of perception thesis or the
ontology of the flesh, has to embrace an impersonal transcendental field,
one free from the syntheses of a subject, the configuration of intentionality,
and the prejudice of correlationism.
Merleau-Pontys treatment of sensing in Phenomenology of Perception
is the most promising concept upon which to develop an immanent
conception of embodiment. Here we find a concept of sensibility that
reverses the formal Kantian view of the subjects aesthetic faculty. MerleauPonty provides us with the means to envision sensibility as a kind of
material transcendental. Recasting the continuities and discontinuities of
the intercorporeal relation in terms of sensations and affects, rather than
perception and flesh, recasts many of the problems raised by MerleauPontys carnal ontology. Indeed, his reversibility thesis becomes more
persuasive when we distinguish the sensible and perceptual life of the
body, then restrict reversibility to the level of perception while assigning an
irreducible alterity (irreversibility) to sensing.
The relation between perception and sensation has a double character.
On the one hand, these two activities are coextensive; on the other
hand, perception is the product of sensation, the latter serving as the
rudimentary content of the former (PP 241/279). A tension between the

Perception, Sensation, and the Problem of Violence 143

impersonal, imperceptible layer of experience (sensation) and the personal,


intentional (perception) arises at this point. If perception is given primacy
in this tension, then experience must be always regarded as organized by
the telos of our intentional arc. By the same token, if sensation is cast as
the most basic form of perception, it can only appear as phenomenal and,
in some sense, coordinated by the subject-object dialogue. But certainly
there are sensations received by the body (what Leibniz would call petites
perceptions)285 that are never elevated to the level of consciousness and
remain forever at the level of proprioceptive information.286 Merleau-Ponty
holds that every perception has something anonymous about it, and that
this is linked to the bodys habits and schemata as well its unsophisticated
(read: sensory) life (PP 238/275). Therefore, to delimit the sensory life
of the body and see how it functions transcendentally for perception, it
is necessary to remain open to speculation about the aesthetic life of the
impersonal One. This is the lesson that emerges when we inhabit the
ambiguity surrounding Merleau-Pontys work on sensibility.

Chapter 4
Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals
Even when unformed, or deformed, by knowing, sensible
intuition can revert to its own meaning.
Levinas, Otherwise than Being

Levinass philosophy of the body contains an explicit commitment to


the primacy of sensation, one that remains only implicit in MerleauPonty. Levinass analyses of embodiment display a marked interest in
the materiality of the subject. This is most evident in his remarks about
sensation and the affective life of the self (the I), as well as in his critique
of intentionality and his occasional criticism of phenomenological method.
In his early texts Existence and Existents, Time and the Other, and Totality
and Infinity this materialism appears through an ontogenetic account of the
emergence of subjectivity; later, in Otherwise than Being, it is through novel
accounts of sensibility and vulnerability that we find Levinas defending
a materialist ontology. It is in the later work that Levinass emphasis on
the vulnerability of the bodythat is, its susceptibility to wounding or its
openness to the outsidegoes too far in its appreciation of the reality of
violence. The enabling aspects of the body-world relation are overshadowed
by the exigency of violence that Levinas sees as basic to intersubjectivity.
This chapter will not rehearse the drama of the same and the Other

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 145

(autrui)287 which dominates Levinass ethics. It will instead reinscribe


Levinass phenomenology into the discourse of ontology and focus on the
significance of sensation in his account of subjectivity. This is admittedly
an heretical reading of Levinas, but one that is not forced upon him.
The purpose of this reading is to supplement Merleau-Pontys treatment
of sensation, and to assemble from their texts an account of embodied
subjectivity that is present in neither thinker considered independently
of the other.

Corporeal Ontology
Levinas is not usually the first person invoked when the philosophy of the
body is up for discussion. His exploration of embodiment is not as broad
as Merleau-Pontys; it is certainly less direct. To unpack Levinass corporeal
ontology the theme must be approached obliquely through his fascinating
treatment of concepts like sensibility, alimentation, fecundity, living from,
and enjoyment. This constellation of concepts, along with some others,
represents Levinass acute concern with affectivity as an individuating
phenomenon. The same goes for sensation: with more candor than
Merleau-Ponty, Levinas affirms sensation as basic to embodiment and the
constitution of subjectivity. He goes further than Merleau-Ponty in pursuing
sensation as a transcendental phenomenon. His analyses of sensation and
sensibility try to fully appreciate the primacy of sensation and, in particular,
its materiality.288
Claiming that Levinas is engaged in ontology is contentious among
commentators because so much of the force of his philosophy operates as
an evasion of ontology. In general he regards the desire for systematicity in
ontology as inherently violent toward beings in their singularity. Ontology,
in this respect, is Procrustean. Instead of approaching beings as unique
individuals, ontology subsumes, or totalizes their uniqueness under a
general system, thus reducing their otherness. To avoid violence of this
kind Levinas consistently argues that ethics, rather than ontology, is
first philosophy. In one sense this means that every individual maintains
a peaceful, responsible, and heteronomous relation to the Other, one
which is prior to any representation or understanding of him or her.
Civil discourse among individuals forms the basis of the community

146 Chapter 4

of knowers, and therefore is the condition of possibility of any theory


of being or epistemology (TI 72-77/44-49).289 A certain intersubjective
stability, a responsiveness to and responsibility for the other, is necessary
for epistemological and ontological reflection to occur. So, ethics first,
then ontology.
Levinass critique of ontology, Heideggers ontology in particular, often
conflates ontology with knowledge of Being in order to argue for the
priority of ethics. This conflation reduces being, or existence in general,
to what can be known about being. This is a familiar move in the Levinas
literature.290 It is symptomatic of the view that ontology cannot get outside
the subject-object correlation, and therefore cannot accommodate the
alterity (the Other) that transcends the correlation. Only metaphysics of the
Levinasian variety can prepare such accommodation because Levinasian
metaphysics is in actuality an ethics dedicated to hospitality toward the
Other, not a theory of what exists or the basic structure of reality. It resists
absolutely any attempt to subordinate the singularity of the Other to the
generality of Being. He writes in Totality and Infinity about how ontology
reduces the other to the same by making the Other appear through a
third term, a neutral term, which is itself not a being (TI 42/12). This
third term, through which the shock of the encounter of the same with
the other is deadened is the theory of being, or ontology understood as a
system of knowledge of beings.
Prior to any conceptualization of the Other, Levinas argues, is the
calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other, or
ethics (TI 43/13). But is not this calling into question an event that requires
an understanding of its conditions and terms? That is, is it not necessary for
us to comprehend the constitution of the subject and the Other in order to
realize the force of ethics? Ontology seems to come before ethics. There is
a sense, however, in which neither enjoys priority, in which aesthetics that is
first philosophy. This thesis, which was suggested in previous chapters, will be
deepened here and in the remaining chapters.
If Heideggers ontology represents a form of correlationismit
would seem that this is how Levinas understands it, although the point
is contentiousthen Levinasian metaphysics challenges correlationism
in the name of an infinity which exceeds the subject-object relation. The

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 147

challenge operates as a response to what Levinas perceives as the inability


of Heideggerian ontology to accommodate otherness, infinity, alteritythat
is, to think beyond being. This may not be a failure of ontology in general,
however, but a failure only of correlationist ontology. An ontology that
surpasses correlationism might not meet the usual Levinasian criticism.
Indeed, what Levinas provides, I think, is a non-correlationist ontology,
although he is reluctant to call it ontology for fear that his work will be read
too closely to Heideggers. Putting this worry aside, we may surmise that
ontology is not intrinsically reductive, violent, or unethical.
Levinass critique of ontology is strongest, I think, when it is seen as an
internal critique of correlationist (including phenomenological) ontology,
rather than as a wholesale rejection of ontology. Moreover, it seems that
Levinass position would be strengthened if he allowed that what he calls
ethics is actually grounded in ontology. On this reading our understanding
of ourselves, others, and intersubjectivity would be seen as equiprimordial
with (if not prior to) ethical responsibility.291 The ontological reading of
Levinas gains traction, I would argue, when we consider that it is not
possible to see what is called into question by the Other until we have
laid bare the constitution of the egocentric subject, or the individual who
cultivates a life of enjoyment and material security.
A grasp of the ontology informing Levinass account of the subject is
essential for contrasting Levinasian and Kantian ethics.292 It is through a
rejection of the Kantian subject as immaterial agent that Levinas is able to
make his case for the eminent vulnerability of the subject and, consequently,
the ethical responsibility entailed by that vulnerability. Levinas argues in
Existence and Existents that the Kantian subject, the transcendental ego,
always stands at a safe distance from the effects of the world. As that which
allows things to appear and be apprehended by cognition, but which does
not act in the world, the Kantian ego presents a way of relating to events
while still being able to not be caught up in them. To be a [Kantian] subject
is to be a power of unending withdrawal, an ability always to find oneself
behind what happens to one (EE 42/77). The Levinasian subject, by
contrast, is caught up in, produced as an ontological event by the world.
Indeed, the entirety of Existence and Existents can be read as the tale of the
subjects emergence from bare existence, the assumption or actualization of

148 Chapter 4

a position out of what Levinas calls the there isthe il y a (EE 66-67,
88/120, 149; TI 175/149). This positioning is the material substantialization,
or separation, of the subject from anonymous existence, a process which
is recounted in Totality and Infinity in terms of the body which enjoys,
nourishes, and lives from (vivre de) the surrounding world:
Enjoyment accomplishes the atheist separation: it deformalizes
the notion of separation, which is not a cleavage made in
the abstract, but the existence at home with itself as an
autochthonous I. The soul dwells in what is not itself, but
it acquires its own identity by this dwelling in the other. (TI
115/88, italics added)
At bottom it is the invulnerability of the Kantian subject in the face of
external affection, which is to say, the untraversable distance separating
subject and world, that Levinas objects to.293 It is in this context that Levinas
foregrounds the affectivity, and ultimately the a priori vulnerability, of
the subject.

Individuation; or, the Enjoyment of Immanence


The story of the emergence of the embodied subject, especially in Totality
and Infinity, but in other texts as well, is guided by the concept of enjoyment
(jouissance). It is precisely the being that enjoys life that is summoned by the
Other to respond, and one responds with offerings of what one enjoys. But
which comes first, the enjoyment or the individual who enjoys? Enjoyment,
it would seem, must either produce individuation or enjoyment must take
place in an already-existing individual. In Levinass view, however, these
eventsenjoyment, individuationare co-constitutive. They generate and
reinforce one another, and there is an ontological story to be told about the
process. And, arguably, this process must have occurred for there to be a
responsive agent who can answer, adequately or inadequately, the call of the
Other. Agency must be accomplished before it can assume responsibility for
its genesis, otherwise what, exactly, is called into question?
What does it mean to be generated by enjoyment? The Levinasian
analysis of enjoyment is packaged with companion concepts like living from,
nourishment, alimentation, and need. These concepts possess physiological

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 149

and phenomenological senses, both of which Levinas attends to, often


collapsing their distinction. The scope of enjoyment is not restricted to what
can be consumed, nor is it interpreted as a phenomenon exclusively attached
to the practice of living, using, and doing. Levinas gives enjoyment a more
expansive sense, identifying it as the affect that effects our separation and
makes possible our manipulation of things; it thus conditions the economic/
practical life that Heidegger sees as primordial to human existence.294 The
content of this individuation, this independence, is primarily affective and
self-sustaining:
One does not only exist ones pain or ones joy; one exists
from pains and joys. Enjoyment is precisely this way the act
nourishes itself with its own activity. To live from bread is
therefore neither to represent bread to oneself nor to act on
it nor to act by means of it. To be sure, it is necessary to earn
ones bread, and it is necessary to nourish oneself in order
to earn ones bread; thus the bread I eat is also that with
which I earn my bread and my life. But if I eat my bread in
order to labor and to live, I live from my labor and from my
bread. (TI 111/83)
Enjoyment is not just about taking in and taking pleasure in taking in.
This passage suggests that Sallis is too quick to reduce enjoyment to the
consumptive aspect of alimentation when he characterizes enjoyment in the
following way: the determination by which to comport oneself to an object
is to appropriate the object, that is, to cancel its otherness and affirm its
sameness with oneself. As in eating.295 This construal of enjoyment not only
overlooks our affective engagements with what could never be consumed
(the elemental, the ungraspable), it too narrowly restricts the meaning of the
Levinasian alimentary. As we will see, alimentation has a much richer and
more nuanced sense than that captured by consumption.
To be sure, enjoyment is a phenomenon analogous to desire in that it
feeds upon and produces itself, unlike need which is satisfied once its lack
has been filled.296 Hunger, for instance, results from a privation of food,
and when I eat my hunger subsides. Even if the food is unsavory, my body
takes pleasure in the sustenance. The structure of nourishment which is
displayed by enjoyment is of a different order than my satiable hunger,

150 Chapter 4

however. Levinass treatment of enjoyment belongs to his phenomenology of


alimentation and his exposition of the concrete features of the interiority, or
economy, of subjectivity.297
Nourishment, as a means of invigoration, is the transmutation
of the other into the same, which is in the essence of
enjoyment: an energy that is other, recognized as other,
recognized as sustaining the very act that is directed upon
it, becomes, in enjoyment, my own energy, my strength, me.
All enjoyment is in this sense alimentation. (TI 111/83)
To live is to savor life and to have that life nourished by the acts which make
up living: sensing, knowing, imagining, wishing, resting, and so on. Each of
these brings an immediate joy that feeds the egoism at the core of life (TI
112/84). And it is in this enjoyment that the very pulsation of the I occurs
(TI 113/85). Subjectivity originates in the independence and sovereignty
of enjoyment, says Levinas (TI 114/86). Enjoyment makes no appeal to the
absolute transcendence often cited by Levinas as the condition of possibility
for subjective individuation. It is, after all, a product of immanence. It is no
less significant for the genesis of subjectivity than the encounter with the
Other, however.
Correlative with Levinass emphasis on the irreducible and absolute
transcendence of the Other is an attempt to think the immanent production
of subjectivity. This is evident in the language he employs to describe
the becoming of the subject in enjoyment. He speaks of individuation as
a coiling (enroulement), folding back (repli), as spiral (spirale) and
involution (involution) (TI 118/91; EE 81/138; OB 73/92). Enjoyment is
denoted as the eddy of the same (le remous mme du Mme) (TI 115/88).
The imagery here suggests that Levinas is trying to conceive individuation
without recourse to some external, individuating agent or cause, but as an
autoaffective process.298 That is, he seems to want an immanent principle of
animation. It is true that the call to responsibility commanded by the Other
singles me out, or individuates me as an ethical agent, but this can only
occur once I have become someone capable of respondingthat is, become
a subject who can be subjected to moral commands. Levinas often speaks
of the encounter with the face of the Other as that which accomplishes my

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 151

subjectivity as an ethical subject. For instance: It is only in approaching the


Other that I attend to myself. And:
The face I welcome makes me pass from phenomenon to
being in another sense: in discourse I expose myself to the
questioning of the Other, and this urgency of the response
acuteness of the presentengenders me for responsibility; as
responsible I am brought to my final reality. (TI 178/153)
It is true that for Levinas we are always already discursive, responsible
beings; but he also implies that there is a form of subjectivityincomplete,
to be surewhich precedes our subjection to the Other. The material
subject, the embodied I, must emerge into a position before it can be called
to account for itself, its possessions, and its enjoyment.
For the subject to be responsible and capable of substituting itself in
the place of the Other, which is precisely what Levinas wants to affirm of
each of us, must not the subject already have something to give? Must it
not be a singular individual, some actual person with actual resources? If
not, would not Levinas be advocating a formal notion of responsibility, one
which responds with empty hands? And would this not be the most abstract
and general form of ethics, an ethics empty of content and on the verge
of effacing the materiality of suffering, inequality, need, and vulnerability?
A non-formal notion of responsibility seems to require a subject that has
not only emerged as an individual, but one who has also already acquired
possessions which it can offer to the destitute Other, before it can be
designated as a responsible/responsive agent. There must be some form of
subjectivity in Levinass thinking which is not merely envisaged as formal
subjection to the Other, but as actual, concrete existing.
Levinas is grappling with the problem of immanent individuation in
Otherwise than Being when he writes that
Matter materializes in satisfaction, which, over and beyond
any intentional relationship of cognition or possession, of
taking in ones hands, means biting into. It is irreducible
to a taking in ones hands, for it is already an absorption of a
within including the ambiguity of two inwardnesses: that of
a recipient of spatial forms, and that of an ego assimilating the
other in its identity, and coiling in over itself. (OB 73/92)

152 Chapter 4

And a little further along, he remarks how there is enjoying of enjoyment


before any reflection, but enjoyment does not turn toward enjoyment
as sight turns toward the seen. Beyond the multiplication of the visible
in images, enjoyment is the singularization of an ego in its coiling back
[enroulement] upon itself (OB 73/93). What Levinas calls the advent of
the subject from out of the anonymity of existence is not a movement of
transcendence, but the taking up of a position through effort, labor, and the
consequent enjoyment which results from these acts. Enjoyment multiplies,
folding back upon itself and wresting the I free, generating a substantial
subject (EE 81/138). The substance of this subject is rooted in the thickness
or viscosity of its affective life.299

Sensibility and the Elements of Representation


Levinass apology for the primacy of affectivity and the sensuous
embodiment of the subject operates as a response to a perceived deficiency
in the phenomenological method devised by Husserl, in particular its
doctrine of objectifying intentionality. It also continues his critique of the
Kantian subject sketched above. Against Kant and Husserl he envisages the
subject as a material event instead of as a transcendental ego that serves as
the condition of possibility for representing or giving meaning to objects
and events. Insofar as his philosophy attempts to supplant the privileged
place of intentionality in phenomenology; as it attempts to install affectivity,
alterity, and the like at the base of experience, Levinass philosophy works
against phenomenology in the name of a quasi-materialist metaphysics.
His interest in phenomenology is driven less by a desire to contribute to a
science of phenomena than by a desire to give a non-reductive metaphysical
account of events that could otherwise be explained by the physical sciences
or recuperated by a representationalist epistemology. In a strong sense
Levinass critique of intentionality is an allergic reaction to what he sees as
the hegemony of representation in phenomenological accounts of otherness
(TI 122-127/95-100).
Levinass objection to phenomenological method is straightforward:
if the objectifying acts of theoretical consciousness, what Husserl calls
meaning-giving (Sinngebung) acts, are our primary mode of access to things,
then those things can only appear to us as representations whose content

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 153

is predetermined by the representing subject. In short, phenomenology


becomes a modified transcendental idealism, its ontology correlationist.
The problem is that this kind of transcendental philosophy leaves no
room for the radical passivity Levinasian ethics requires, and it fails to
appreciate the ambiguity of the given as well as its capacity to surprise (TI
123, 125/96, 97). The act of representation discovers, properly speaking,
nothing before itself (TI 125/97). From the practical perspective, the
subject who constitutes the content of the world through representations
retains an identity that persists throughout all of its experiences. It is not
properly shaped by its world because it is not fully exposed to the world.
The spontaneity of its freedom to represent is never compromised by the
objects it represents. As Levinas says, in representation the I precisely loses
its opposition to its object; the opposition fades, bringing out the identity of
the I despite the multiplicity of its objects, that is, precisely the unalterable
character of the I. To remain the same is to represent to oneself (TI
126/99). Representation is the ruin of alterity.
Levinas supplants objectifying acts of consciousness and installs
sensation as the ground of experience. An analogous move is made by
Merleau-Ponty when he (tentatively) places le sentir before both operative
intentionality and intentionality of act. Levinass move is more radical,
however, because it unequivocally asserts that sensation is discontinuous
with perception and cognition. He recognizes the content of sensibility as
prior to intentionality of any form. This means that the subjects sensuous
contact with what is exterior remains forever anterior to its perception and
representational acts. Its sensuous contact with the Other, as well as with
matter and the sensible as such (the diminutive other), thus comprises
the transcendental field in Levinass philosophy. John Drabinski writes
of this field:
The sensible surrounds and structures the movement toward
the object and thereby structures the very possibility of the
noematic horizons that form the field of transcendental
exposition. The sensible is transcendental, not in the sense
that it is already an ideality, but rather that it is a presupposed
condition of all reflective life.300

154 Chapter 4

That the sensible is presupposed signals Levinass transgression of


phenomenological principles, as well as his willingness to speculate about
the ontogenesis of subjectivity. This does not mean that Levinas must
break completely with phenomenology in order to rediscover the force
of sensationon the contrary, he finds that intentionality rehabilitates
the sensible [rhabilite le sensible].301 How so? He points to the tacit
dimension of intentional acts, or that which consciousness sees without
seeing.302 The tacit dimension of seeing is not just the unintended
horizon of unfulfilled intentions which accompany explicit intentions, but
represents the very excess of intentionality which is incontestably akin to
the modern conceptions of the unconscious and the depths. There is a
reciprocal constitution at play in intentionality, whereby the object, which
is supposedly constituted by consciousness, proves to contain more than its
explicit constitution, and this more than reveals itself as always already
conditioning thought. A new ontology begins: being is posited not only
as correlative to a thought, but as already founding the very thought that
nonetheless constitutes it.303
Levinass new ontology locates a fundamental excess at the heart of
intentional consciousness, signaling the ruin of representation and the
destabilization of the Kantian (and Husserlian) subject. If Kants schema
requires an imperceptible layer of content that lies below the level of
representation, but one that is beyond the reach of transcendental idealism,
then Levinas shows how this layer threatens to disrupt the stability of
the subject of representation. Kants transcendental method admits the
existence of this layer of content, but effectively neutralizes its volatility. As
Levinas writes in The Ruin for Representation:
The idea of a necessary implication that is absolutely
imperceptible to the subject directed on the object, only
discovered after the fact upon reflection, thus not produced in
the present, that is, produced unbeknownst to me, puts an end
to the ideal of representation and the subjects sovereignty, as
well as to the idealism according to which nothing could enter
into me surreptitiously. A deep-seated passion is thus revealed
in thought.304

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 155

As the transcendental support of representation the sensible and its


qualities constitute the milieu in which the subject perceives. Totality and
Infinity gives a lengthy description of this ungraspable milieu, referring to
it as the element. The element has no profiles; it is a pure quality that
we enjoy before we make any categorical judgments about it (TI 131133/104-107). As Sallis characterizes it, the element is irreducible to a
system of operational references and has its own thickness and density.
And unlike the things that come to us in the medium, the medium itself
is nonpossessable. Sallis continues: The depth of the element does not,
as with a thing, conceal a series of other profiles that could be offered to
various perspectives.305 The element is that which surrounds us, like climate
or atmospheric temperature or the aesthetic.
Lover of ambiguity that he is, and despite the fact that he uses the term
to describe the flesh, the element as Levinas understands it appears to be
missing in Merleau-Ponty.306 For Levinas the element is the very locus of
ambiguity and what resists categorical judgment. This is its unique mode of
being, what enables it to support the things that inhabit it without appearing
as one of those things. And yet, it is not simply the horizon or background
of an intentional act. It exceeds every such act. The elemental/sensuous
milieu is privileged, because within it that ambiguity of constitution,
whereby the noema conditions and shelters the noesis that constitutes it, is
played out.307 Levinas notes that Husserl wanted to designate the sensuous
as objective, that is, as independent of subjective constitution, but his
adherence to the primacy of intentionality prevented him from doing so.
This is because intentionality plays the role of an apprehension with regard
to those contents upon which it bestows an objective meaning and which
it animates or inspires.308 By contrast, Levinas insists that we live through
the objectivity of sensations. Even Husserl recognized this. It is then more
accurate to say that the materiality of sensations [matrialit des sensations]
is, borrowing Levinass own expression, lived from or enjoyed, never
intended, apprehended or grasped by the intellect or perception.309
In addition to acting as a resistance to representational thinking
sensation provides the aliment that gives birth to any subject capable of
representing. Sensation, then, would not be just an effect of the objective on
the subject, but a complicity between the materiality of subject and object:

156 Chapter 4

the corporeity of consciousness is in exact proportion to this participation


of consciousness in the world it constitutes, but this corporeity is produced
[produit] in sensation.310 In Otherwise than Being this complicity is developed
in Levinass analysis of sensibility and in terms of contact with otherness,
and contributes to Levinass transcendental aesthetic of embodiment.311 It is
notable that emphasis in both texts is on the productive aspect of sensation,
its capacity to generate the consciousness of the lived body.
The ensuous complicity of subject and object recalls Merleau-Pontys
idea of sensing as communion. The key difference between the two thinkers,
however, is that Merleau-Ponty sees this communion as synchronous,
whereas Levinas recognizes it as the locus of a diachrony which entails the
very instability of the body-world relation. Also lacking in Merleau-Pontys
understanding is the idea that corporeity itself is produced materially
by sensations, that sensations conspire with affects to produce singular
subjects. In Merleau-Pontys subject-object dialogue it is the movement
of perception and the posture of the body (but not its materiality) that
is affected by sensation, whereas for Levinas sensation actually produces
the body qua living, sensing, enjoying being. The difference may be more
palpable if Levinass position is rendered in neuroscientific discourse,
which regards the conversion of what is felt into nervous material [as]
nonstop, as Bernard Andrieu notes.312 For Levinas, sensations and affects
are convertedand this he tries to account for phenomenologicallyinto
the content of life, or the feeling of living. Insofar as we live from this feeling
and gain a desire to continue living, we can say that sensations are converted
into material life. In biology there is a name for this processmetabolism.313
Sensing, for Levinas, is a metabolic event. But it is also an intimate kind
of transaction, beyond mere commerce or exchange, one that is felt and
enjoyed by the being that metabolizes.
There is a distinct shift of emphasis between the analyses of sensibility
given in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being. In the earlier text
Levinas concentrates his narrative of subject-constitution on the enabling
features of sensibility and the dependence of the body on the material
environment. In the later text he tends to cast sensibility as that which leaves
the subject precariously exposed to the outside and vulnerable to wounding.
That is, a non-reciprocity comes to mark the relation between the body and

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 157

the other: the Levinasian body ultimately becomes a susceptible body, where
susceptibility is understood as the radical passivity which arises from the
diachrony of sensibility. In both texts sensibility is given a pre-reflective and
pre-representational role, and it is clear that Levinas sees it as prior to the
emergence of objectifying consciousness.
Levinas affirms, following Descartes, the irrationality and ambiguity
of sensation. Like Kant, he separates sensibility from the understanding
and relegates sensible matter to a place beyond the synthetic power
of representation (TI 135-136/109). Nevertheless, Levinas maintains
that a phenomenology of sensation is possible. I will try to adduce in the
remainder of this chapter Levinass phenomenology of the sensible (TI
136/109) and his unique perspective on sensibility.

The Phenomenology of Sensation


Totality and Infinity ties sensibility to enjoyment, calling enjoyment the
essence of sensibility. Conversely, sensibility is determined as the mode of
enjoyment (TI 134, 135/107, 108). Sensibility is therefore determined as a
mode of affectivity or point of access for pleasurable and painful encounters.
If, as we saw earlier, enjoyment is responsible for the genesis of the self, then
sensibility must also have something to do with how the self is generated.
Sensibilitys modality is undirected and sufficient unto itself (TI
135/108-109), which means that it does not belong to the order of
instrumentality that Levinas assigns to the economy of possessionthe
hand that grasps objects as tools/implements (as in Heidegger or MerleauPonty) or the mind which grasps objects as concepts (as in Hegel) or assigns
phenomena their meaning (as in Husserl).314 Sensibility is neither a means
to nor in the service of, despite being basic to labor, work, effort,
dwelling, and so on. Above all, it is a direct encounter with the otherness
that is given through sensation and material life, which is not for Levinas
simply a question of resistance to action or opposition: sensibility establishes
our relation to the elemental through our corporeal enjoyment of aesthetic
qualities (TI 136/109). This enjoyment is discontinuous with the synthetic
acts of consciousness. It is not a stage toward representation, but the fleeting
affective rhythm of the I. It is, as Merleau-Ponty has put it, a mode in which

158 Chapter 4

the subject is born and dies as each instant (TI 136, 143/109-110, 117;
PP 216/250).
Silvia Benso illustrates this process with an analysis of breathing.
Breathing is a twofold process, inspiration and expiration. Inspiration and
expiration, which are structurally equivalent to birth and death, animatethe
subject with the element of air. Such an animation does not occur at
the level of cognition, theory, or intentionality, claims Levinas. Rather, it
is only possible at the level of the body, through an incarnation.315 This
interpretation of living disengages the body from its reliance on the soul
by localizing the animation of subjectivity in the intercorporeal, rather
than spiritual, realm. The problem of the interaction of body and soul
drops off in favor of a phenomenology of corporeal life and its reliance on
the elemental. The body thus is retrieved from its confinement in that
Cartesian order of materiality for which the body and the soul have no
common space where they can touch.316 The significance of breathing is
not merely physiological, as Levinas makes clear. It yields a transcendental
interpretation that locates the conditions of possibility at the border between
body and environment, that is, in sensibility.
The pulsation of the I is supported by the sensible, while the sensible
itself remains groundless, anarchic. The insecurity entailed in this
anarchy is not exactly a material threat, but a question of the temporality
of the sensible. The sensible world precedes me as an absolute of an
unrepresentable antiquity that is perhaps only apprehensible by imagining
the total destruction of the worldan impossible thought experiment (TI
137/111; EE 51/93). We cannot know from whence it comes or whether it
will continue in the future. Its promise is precarious, without guarantee that
it will continue to sustain life.
It is true that we always access the sensible in the present and, affective
and abstract encounters notwithstanding, via representations. MerleauPonty points to Czannes painting; Deleuze, Francis Bacons. Digital
imaging of the autonomic nervous system offers a high-tech representation
of the sensing body. This does not mean that the totality of the sensible
is given in representations, for the represented, the present, is a fact,
already belonging to a past (TI 130/103). Representations are laced with
an anteriority that cannot endure the formal exigencies of the present. To

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 159

represent the sensible as such would be analogous to encountering the il


y a in pure form, bare existence, in its absolute formlessness. It would be
an actualization in the present of the absolute past, the apeiron whence
everything comes. Despite the impossibility of this eventwe are always
already caught up in a world of thought, language, perceptionLevinas
assures us that we do in fact come face to face with formless phenomena
(TI 139/112). In Totality and Infinity he speaks of how our identities are
haunted by the elemental and the insecurity this brings us, while in Existence
and Existents he speaks of the horror of the il y a that we experience in the
night.317 But how are these formless phenomena revealed, that is, accessed
phenomenologically?

Building an Identity
Existence and Existents traces the genesis of the individual existent from
out of the anonymity of pure existence, being qua being. This anonymity,
although not temporally prior to individuation, maintains an ontological
priority over the subject who thinks, acts, and feels as a singular ego or
person. On Levinass account the existent breaks free from anonymity by
taking up a position or assuming an identity, exerting itself against the
indeterminacy of being and feeling itself alive in its efforts. It is only when
we make an effort through labor that a rift is created in being and the
present is allowed to open up: Effort is the very effecting of a present,
says Levinas (EE 23/48), because the fatigue which results from effort
dislocates the existent from its synchrony with the uninterrupted duration
of bare existence.318 The same is said by Rousseau in the Discourse on the
Origin of Inequality, in which it is work and the subsequent circumscription
of property that extricates human being from the infantile and innocent
realm of sensibility.319 What Jean Starobinski calls the struggle to overcome
natural obstacles with the application of tools is what gives rise to the
psychological transformations that institute a critical reflective distance
between humans and their environment.320 Work, in short, conditions
reflection and leads eventually to the inequalities of society. For Levinas,
work introduces more than a psychological rift and more than social
inequality: work tears pure being and time apart. Work produces subjects.
Whereas the process of individuation, and the opposition of self and other

160 Chapter 4

entailed in it, is for Rousseau psychological, for Levinas it is basically


affective. And this affectivity performs a transcendental function that is
not found in Rousseaus speculative anthropology. As an affective, rather
than reflective, event the retroactive movement of work on the partitioning
of being awakens us to our interminable contract with existence. Despite
appearances, work is not an escape from existence: Fatigue is to be sure
not a cancellation of ones contact with being. The delay it involves is
nonetheless an inscription in existence (EE 25/51).
Our inescapable attachment to existence is dramatized in the experience
of insomnia. The insomniac not only feels herself alive in her fatigue,
she suffers existence in a much more menacing form. She faces the
insufferability of pure existence as she seeks, through what Levinas calls
vigilance, to tear herself free from the indeterminacy of the night which
watches over her, holds her hostage to her wakefulness.321 Particularly in
Existence and Existents the night figures as the experiential form of the il y a,
or pure being. In the night, Levinas tells us, things lose their form and the
dark matter of existence encroaches upon us. Being takes on a menacing
aspect through which we are confronted with the anonymity of our own
existence. Insomnia reminds us that we are not completely in control of
our being.322
The insomniac experiences a wakefulness at night that contests the
spontaneity of her will, that challenges the authority she claims over her
position in existence. She wants and wills sleep, but sleep will not come.
And it eventually seems that it is the night itself which withholds sleep
from her. The sense of being alive that comes with fatigue transforms into
a restless horror. She finds herself at the mercy of being. Instead of fatigue
giving way to sleep, One watches on when there is nothing to watch and
despite the absence of any reason for remaining watchful (EE 61/109). It is
as though, in the grip of the night, the restlessness of the insomniacs body
has extinguished the freedom of the ego and rendered the ego a prisoner
of the night. I am, one might say, the object rather than the subject of an
anonymous thought (EE 63/111). And this, says Levinas, is a horrifying
condition (EE 55/98).323
The horror of existence is articulated with the insecurity bestowed upon
our bodies by our sensibility, a condition which is warded off (for a time)

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 161

in dwelling (TI 137/110-111). In dwelling we shelter ourselves from the


elements, and this sheltering offers the nourishment of enjoyment. The
enjoyment of warmth, security, comfort. We shelter ourselves because we
are incapable of getting a hold on or containing the elements that, beyond a
certain threshold, begin to destroy instead of sustain us. The air we breathe
is the same air that freezes our flesh. The themes of fatigue and effort found
in Existence and Existents recur in the narrative regarding dwelling and
possession contained in Totality and Infinity. The phenomenon of dwelling
is elaborated against the backdrop of enjoyment, on the one hand, and the
insecurity buried in the depths of enjoyment, on the other. Dwelling is an
ambivalent affair.
Dwelling gives rise to the representation and, ultimately, possession
of objects. But dwelling is not only an activity in which consumption and
possession occur, it is itself an event of alimentation. There are multiple
kinds of alimentation involved in dwelling, some affective and others
consumptive. In the home the subject takes up a position of refuge. Only
after this position is established can labor commence, and it is this labor,
for Levinas, that gives form to matter and produces the world of graspable/
consumable thingspossessions (TI 156, 157, 159/130, 131, 133).324 A
subject does not exist before the event of its position. The act of taking
a position does not unfold in some dimension from which it could take
its origin; it arises at the very point at which it acts (EE 81/138). Taking
a position is a condition of laboring, and yet it is not yet acting. Acting
is a movement of transcendence, whereas laboring is a movement of
immanence. Assuming a position belongs to the involutionary movement of
effort and fatigue, of enjoyment and living from. Positioning and dwelling
are the concrete modes through which the subject comes to be situated
in the objective world. They lend bodies the support needed to come to
terms with the elemental through labor (TI 158/131). Yet, this is the kind
of support that must be constantly taken up, rebuilt, and maintaineda
Sisyphean labor.
Labor leads to possession and is guided by the final causality of the
hand. The hand takes hold of things, masters them, comprehends them. It
takes them up and puts them to use. Possession is accomplished in takingpossession or labor, the destiny of the hand (TI 159/132). Possession is

162 Chapter 4

contrasted with the enjoyment of sensibility, which is precisely determined


by its non-possession: The hand comprehends the thing not because it
touches it on all sides at the same time but because it is no longer a
sense-organ, pure enjoyment, pure sensibility, but is mastery, domination,
dispositionwhich do not belong to the order of sensibility (TI 161/135).
Levinas aims to designate possession as a practico-ontological affair, one
that assuages the insecurity brought on by our exposure to the elemental:
Possession masters, suspends, postpones the unforeseeable future of the
elementits independence, its being (TI 158/132). Despite its attachment
to ontology, however, Levinas refuses here to call labor a violence. This is
because it is applied to what is faceless, to the resistance of nothingness
(TI 160/134).
All of thisfrom individuation to dwelling to laborinvolves and
influences the genesis of the body of the subject who dwells and labors.
First, the hand substantializes things, outlines their contours and draws
them out of the pure quality of the element. Things are not first there,
waiting to give themselves to consciousness.325 Second, Levinas argues
that the subject is originally influenced by its affective commerce with the
element. It is the product of the medium. The lived body is no more
active than it is passive, no less affective than perceptive. This is not an
endorsement of the duality of the body (lived body/objective body), but
of its ambiguous nature, which Levinas identifies with consciousness
(TI 165/139). Consciousness, he says, is not an incarnation, but a
disincarnation, a positioning of the corporeity of the body which
emerges in the concreteness of dwelling and labor (TI 165-166/140).
Consciousness, then, arises out of the bodys pulsations in labor. The rhythm
of labor, and the tension involved therein, give rise to consciousness. He
thus provides an accountpart phenomenological, part speculativeof
the birth of subjectivity in the body. One is reminded here of Nietzsches
remarks on the origin of consciousness in On the Genealogy of Morality,
where the inhibition of physical human activity gives birth, in a folding
back upon oneself, to the internalizing of manconscious reflection.326
Only after the fact of embodiment do reflective and representational activity
become possible. Appreciating the ambiguity of the bodys relation to the
other, Levinas writes:

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 163

In its deep-seated fear life attests this ever possible inversion


of the body-master into body-slave, of health and sickness. To
be a body is on the one hand to stand [se tenir], to be master
of oneself, and, on the other hand, to stand on the earth, to
be in the other, and thus to be encumbered by ones body.
Butwe repeatthis encumberment is not produced as a
pure dependence; it forms the happiness of him who enjoys it.
(TI 164/138)
The bodys capacity to work on things acts as a consolation for its inability
to rend itself from being to enjoy a degree of autonomy and accumulate a
stock of resources that may be shared with the needful Other. Consciousness
relieves the bodygives respite, allows it to stand outfrom the physical
realm, helping to postpone the disintegration and death proper to material
life. At the same time the body remains prey to the Other who paralyzes
possession (TI 170, 171/145).

The Rhythm of Sensation


Levinass prioritizing of sensibility over the grasp and comprehension works
as a critique of Merleau-Ponty, in particular the latters insistence that our
basic modus operandi involves an initial hold on things that increasingly
converges upon an even better hold. While Levinas certainly appreciates that
our practical relations with things, our treatment of them as implements,
is our primary means of handling the world, he insists that below the
equipmental and perceptual levels lies the inscrutable level of sensation.
Sensation is not part of perception. Perception belongs to the intentional
sphere, the realm of consciousness, whereas sensation anonymously
haunts the edges of perception. The affectivity of sensation functions
transcendentally; it is virtually real. Perception actualizes representations.327
The very distinction between representational and affective content is
tantamount to a recognition that enjoyment is endowed with a dynamism
other than that of perception, writes Levinas (TI 187/161). He realizes
that such claims stretch the limits of phenomenology, but he aspires to a
phenomenology of sensation nonetheless.

164 Chapter 4

Levinass entire ontology of the sensible is built on the claim that the
pure quality of existence is independent of us, anarchic, and ungraspable
and yet, it is given. No reversibility can exist between us and the
purely sensible because it is in the nature of the sensible to exceed our
representational and practical capacities; it is impossible to get a grip
on it. This leaves us vulnerable to its precarious future. At the heart of
sensibility is a diachrony, or dehiscence, that interrupts the synchrony of
body and world just as a caress of the skin defers the immediacy of contact
indefinitely. In a caress, what is there is sought as though it were not
there, as though the skin were the trace of its own withdrawal, a languor
still seeking, like an absence which, however, could not be more there. The
caress is the not coinciding proper to contact (OB 90/114).328
In Reality and Its Shadow, one of his most sustained treatments of
aesthetics and art, Levinas explicitly argues for the diachrony of aesthetic
experience. Here he is close to Deleuze in at least one respect: both thinkers
see the effects of aesthetic rhythm as constitutive of aesthetic experience
and, consequently, the integrity of the embodied subject. For Levinas
rhythm is the means by which we are affected, against our will, by the work
of art. This is how the work hits us. This affection, however, is different from
that undergone when someone is faced with the il y a, which lacks rhythm
(EE 62/111), suggesting that the pure encounter with being is outside
aesthetics. Rhythm conducts the passive moment of sensing, the moment in
which our active representation is converted into a passive reception:
Rhythm represents a unique situation where we cannot speak
of consent, assumption, initiative or freedom, because the
subject is caught up and carried away by it. The subject is
part of its own representation. It is so not even despite itself,
for in rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of
passage from oneself to anonymity.329
This is applicable not only to music, but to poetry and painting as well.
Rhythm is precisely that sensible form/content that detaches itself from the
artwork and seizes upon sensibility, bypassing consciousness, folding the
subject into the aesthetic event.330
To insist on the musicality of every image is to see in an image
its detachment from an object, that independence from the

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 165

category of substance which the analysis of our textbooks


ascribe to pure sensation not yet converted into perception
(sensation as an adjective), which for empirical psychology
remains a limit case, a purely hypothetical given.331
Embedded in the figure and form of representational content lies the
sensory content which informs the rhythm of the aesthetic. Granted, we
may not always apprehend the rhythm of sensation phenomenologically,
but that is just the point: the function of sensation is to affect sensibility
directly and render the viewer/listener captive. This is why Levinas says that
sensibility is realized only by the imagination.332 Only the imagination of
the painter, poet, musician, for example, can represent the aesthetic event
with which sensibility comes into contact, that is, pure sensation detached
from representation. The audience can attempt the same.
Sensation is an interpellation, a kind of imperative that cannot be dodged
because its subtle force operates immediately on the body, below the level of
both perception and apperception. Insofar as it engages us simultaneously at
the level of perception and sensation, indirectly and directly on the body, the
aesthetic dimension operates diachronically. It is, in short, out of step with
the correlation of thought and being.333 Since the sensory event is always
happening behind the scenes, animating the present representation but
never rising to the level of representation, it remains forever in the past.334
Rhythm affects sensibility as a distinct ontological event, according
to Levinas.335 Deleuze has argued a similar point about the effect of some
painting, specifically Francis Bacons. For Deleuze rhythm is fundamental
to the logic of sensation; it is what animates/unifies the senses and their
discrete content.336 This logic does not belong to the physiological layout
of the organic body, but rather it operates on the body at the point where
rhythm plunges into chaos, into the night, at the point where the differences
of level are perpetually and violently mixed.337 Because the body is not just
an organized set of organs, but also an event (at one and the same time I
become in the sensation and something happens through the sensation)338
whose integrity is constituted by thresholds and limits, the body becomes
organized by the sensations it receives or gives off.
It is not the stable form of the body that Bacon paints, but what
sensation does to the body, the body as sensory event: what is painted

166 Chapter 4

on the canvas is the body, not insofar as it is represented as an object, but


insofar as it is experienced as sustaining this sensation, argues Deleuze.339
As Panagia frames the problem: Bacon is thus not painting figures, nor
are his paintings merely grotesque; he is, rather, making invisible forces
palpable; for Deleuze, Bacon confronts the central problem of painting, the
problem of rendering invisible forces.340 In a sense what Bacon paints is the
accumulation of forces that makes up the identity of the bodyits sensory
fingerprint or signature, so to speak. This identity is, however, never fixed or
properly personal: it belongs to the anonymous rhythm of the sensible and
is always prone to the violence or disfiguration of sensations emitted by
other bodies.341 It just happens.
Deleuze gives us a more radical expression of what sensation does than
Levinas, although I think they are effectively on the same page about what
sensation is. Although the two philosophers have many differences, taken
together Levinass and Deleuzes analyses of aesthetic rhythm allow us to
glimpse a dynamic, and somewhat paradoxical, conception of aesthetic
identity. On this model identity is constituted by the imperceptible
exchange of sensations between bodies in direct communication. Sensations
accumulate in the body, giving it a particular figure or disfiguring it. Bodies
are thus determined by the sensations they offer and receive from other
bodies. They are, as Spinoza has it, capacities to affect and be affected
aesthetically. Or, as Hume might have said, I am nothing more than the
sensations which pass across and territorialize my body. I am little more
than the sounds, scents, colors, textures, and tastes emitted from my body. I
am a conspiracy of sensations.

Alimentation and Susceptibility


The significance of this conception of bodily identity is ramified in
Levinass work because he regards sensation as foundational to both
experience and selfhood. Levinass brief discussion of the transcendental
function of sensation circles us back to the analysis of enjoyment and
the immanent constitution of the subject by the other.342 We must always
keep in mind that sensation, for Levinas as for Deleuze, is never just a
matter of the ambivalence of feeling.343 With the explicit affirmation of its
transcendental function we see Levinas appreciating the force of sensation

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 167

significantly more than Merleau-Ponty, who, in Levinass view, overlooks the


deep ambiguity and passivity of sensation.344 To achieve this appreciation
Levinas must venture outside of phenomenology and into speculative
metaphysics, affirming the reality of sensation not only as something that
provides the content of cognition, but also as something that directly shapes
the structural integrity of the subject. Sensation, then, names a fundamental,
if not radical, passivity of the subject.345 The subject, as embodied, finds
itself from the start in a heteronomous positionaffected and nourished
by what is other than itself. Its first receptivity is its sensibility; it lives from
sensations which provide the alimentary content of its representations.
This alimentary layer of sensation recovers a reality when we see in it
not the subjective counterpart of objective qualities, but an enjoyment
anterior to the crystallization of consciousness, I and non-I, into subject
and object (TI 188/162).346 Sensation here names the experience of the
body in immanence, but an immanence which is constantly broken up by a
double temporality: the temporality of the represented and the temporality
of the sensed.
No one has appreciated the alimentary or enabling dimension of
sensation more than Alphonso Lingis. In fact, Lingis goes so far as to defend
the ethical valence of the force of sensation. Prior to any formal imperative
imposed on the intellect by reason is the imperative the body receives from
the environment, which orders the body to adapt itself to the contour of
the land, the shape of the tool taken up in our work, or the elements which
envelop it.347 This contact with things is directly received as sensations which
are assimilated into the posture of the body and its body schema. Or, to
put it more radically, the body is schematized by the sensuous environment
which accumulates in its flesh. Sensation and schematization name an
identical process:
The imperative in our environment is received, not on our
understanding in conflict with our sensuality, but on our
postural schema which integrates our sensibility and mobilizes
our motor forces. It is received on our sensory-motor bodies
as bodies we have to center upon things that orient our
movements, bodies we have to anchor on the levels down
which our vision, our touch, our listening move, on which we

168 Chapter 4

station ourselves and move in the heart of reality. It orders our


competence.348
Of course, we always negotiate with the layout of the environment as we
make our way through it. But there is a sense in which our bodies are made
to move in certain non-negotiable, imperative ways: reflexes and other
autonomic responses, debilitating and incapacitating ways necessitated
by our materiality. Levinas speaks of how the face of the Other does not
compel me to accept its solicitation after I have considered it, but before:
In the proximity of the face, the subjection precedes the reasoned decision
to assume the order that it bears.349 Lingis finds this kind of subjection in
sensation writ large, not just in the aesthetics of the human face.
Imperative responses cut straight to our sensibility and would be
apprehended as pure sensations if perception did not filter them through
figured representations and the figure-ground structure. This is a speculative
point, but one worth risking. We live from these responses because they
enable our bodies to move through and work competently in the material
world. However, we do not constitute them. They are the medium through
which the world communicates to us. This is possible because our bodies
are immanent to, and in many respects dependent upon, other bodies like
and unlike our own. Radios, daffodils, street signs, and neighborhoods
impress us and invest us with their diverse sensuous content. This is what it
means to belong to an ecological community and to be a member of what
Vivian Sobchack calls the interobjective realm. Interobjectivity describes
the anonymous community in which our bodies, otherwise consciously,
exist with the common matter and potential of materiality that is mutually
shared not only by intentional subjects but also by nonintentional objects.350
The passions we undergo in the interobjective realm inform us of what it
means to be not only an objective subject but also a subjective object whose
intentionality and alterity can be sensed from without. And, continues
Sobchack, it is in the passionate suffering of interobjectivity that we gain
an enhanced awareness of what it is to be material and an appreciation
for the material foundation of our aesthetic behavior toward the world
and others.351 To feel oneself as a material being that suffers and makes
others suffer is to recognize at once that the aesthetic foundation of action
is likewise the basis of the ethical. Ecological life is not just about flowers,

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 169

furry critters, conservation, and cooperative living.352 There are darker sides
of relational life that harbor their own power, as we will see later on.
In Levinass later work, Otherwise than Being, immanence takes on a
grave tenor. As Stella Sandford notes, Both stress the corporeality of
the subject as sensibility, but in Totality and Infinity the emphasis falls on
pleasure, while in Otherwise than Being the keynote is suffering.353 The
heteroaffection of sensibility becomes a transcendental vulnerability and
the animation of the subject is cast as the body exposed to the other
(OB 69/87).354 The alimentary function of sensation, which is apparent
throughout Levinass exploration of dwelling and enjoyment in Totality and
Infinity, is displaced by a desire to articulate the way in which sensibility
leads to the break up of identity, and is the means by which the subject is
subjected to the diachrony of the sensible (OB 14-15/17-19).355 Levinas goes
so far as to identify subjectivity with the vulnerability of sensibility (OB 15,
50, 54/18, 65-66, 70). This vulnerability is given a carnal form, the skin, and
a phenomenological interpretation that will serve to reground his theory of
ethical responsibility.
Levinas once again points to labor, fatigue, and effort to reprise
the embodied aspect of subjectivity. But the affection of the subject is
interpreted now more emphatically as obsession, pain, and the interruption
of enjoyment. Corporeality is the pain of effort, the original adversity of
fatigue, which arises in the upsurge of movement and in the energy involved
in labor (OB 54/70). Levinas has replaced the originary enjoyment of labor
with an originary suffering: As a passivity in the paining of the pain felt,
sensibility is a vulnerability, for pain comes to interrupt an enjoyment in
its very isolation, and thus tears me from myself (OB 55/71). It is difficult
to discern whether enjoyment or pain takes precedence now, or whether
they are equiprimordial modes of existence. For instance, Levinas says that,
It is with savoring and enjoyment that the analysis of sensibility will have
to begin (OB 56/72), but this does not mean that sensibility is originally
savoring and enjoyment. Nor does this statement outweigh what he says
in defense of the primacy of pain in Otherwise than Being. Dennis King
Keenan points out a similar ambiguity regarding Levinass position on
sensibility. It is not clear, says Keenan, whether enjoyment of sensibility is
an exposure to the other or a singularizing involution, or if our relationship

170 Chapter 4

with the other should be characterized as enjoyment, menace/necessity, or


responsibility, all of which are singularizing and exposure. Despite Levinass
attempts in Totality and Infinity to establish and maintain a rigid distinction,
there is blurring.356 What is clear is that pain and enjoyment both belong
to sensibility, which in either case provides the bodys first opening
onto its other.
Immediacy and materiality lend sensibility its constitutive susceptibility.
Levinas writes of how matter materializes in enjoyment and satisfaction,
which is first and foremost a seizing and a consuming (OB 73/92). The
materiality of enjoyment is then correlated with the excess of meaning
involved in alimentation, an excess that conditions the very thought that
would think it as condition (TI 128/101; see also, TO 62-64/45-49). But,
at the same time and paradoxically (not unlike Derridas pharmakon, if
you like), what nourishes us is also what threatens the stability or integrity
of our bodies. The material we come into contact with through sensibility
contains a basic ambivalence: it enables us, but remains perpetually capable
of disabling us. Sensibility, as a form of contact, is the reversion of our grasp
on things into our being grasped by them, a situation which is described
by Levinas in the ambiguity of a kiss (OB 75/94). This ambiguity is not
equivalent to the reversibility that Merleau-Ponty sees in the handshake,
because, in Levinass view, the supposed imminence of reversibility is
precisely what remains in question and precarious, even if his diachronic
structure of self and other is analogous to Merleau-Pontys.357 It is as
though the ambiguity of the kiss, or the handshake, is what short-circuits
or prevents reversibility, thus undermining Merleau-Pontys image of the
flesh by installing an image of irreversibility. One never knows whether
the encounter is reciprocal or oppositional; both are viable possibilities.
[Sensibility] writes Levinas, reverts from the activity of being a hunter of
images to the passivity of being prey, from being aim to being wound, from
being an intellectual act of apprehension to apprehension as an obsession by
another who does not manifest himself (OB 75/95).
Contact has a technical sense for Levinas; it names a precise situation.
It is basic to the embodied subject and describes the absolute proximity of
the other as the immediate opening up for the other of the immediacy of
enjoyment, the immediacy of taste, materialization of matter (OB 74/94).

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 171

Contact likewise describes the original exposure of sensibility to the other,


that is, the transcendental aspect of heteroaffection. The subject who enjoys
and is born from enjoyment is always already enjoying the other as element,
sensation, matter. Subjects live from the other, hence their responsibility for
the other. Levinas gives contact/proximity a carnal signification:
Sensibilitythe proximity, immediacy and restlessness which
signify in itis not constituted out of some apperception
putting consciousness into relationship with a body.
Incarnation is not a transcendental operation of a subject that
is situated in the midst of a world it represents to itself; the
sensible experience of the body is already and from the start
incarnate. The sensible binds the node of incarnation into a
plot larger than the apperception of the self. In this plot I am
bound to others before being tied to my body. (OB 76/96)
Proximity, then, is prior to the emergence of the subject who represents
or whose body is an I can. It opens the subject to the approach of the
other, which arrives as though from an immemorial past, which was
never present, began in no freedom (OB 88/112). Our contact with
the transcendental past is embodied in the skin, which Levinas, echoing
Merleau-Ponty, calls the divergency [lcart] between the visible and the
invisible (OB 89/113). The skin is not a flesh in which each one of us
participates, but a surface that at once keeps us separated and touching,
substances who exist in themselves yet nevertheless relate. Sandford
captures the carnality of proximity, and recalls Bensos remarks on
breathing, when she writes:
It is the respiration of the skin prior to any intention, a
being turned to the Other as a being turned inside out, a
going beyond the skin, to the underside of the skin, a getting
underneath the skin, an obsession, a nakedness more naked
than any excoriation (dpouillement). This is proximity.358
The skin is a liminal site, the gap [dcalage] between approach and
approached where alterity is produced (OB 90/114; TI 26-27/xiv-xv).
In Totality and Infinity (26-27/xiv-xv) Levinas explains that the idea of
infinitywhich is synonymous with the revelation of the Otheris produced

172 Chapter 4

in me, in the improbable feat whereby a separated being fixed in its


identity, the same, the I, nonetheless contains in itself what it can neither
contain nor receive solely by virtue of its own identity. It seems to me that
the skin, insofar as it is receptive to an influx of sensory material which
it could never hope to process completely, is the site where the depths of
thingstheir matter, according to Levinasis produced/revealed. That is,
the skin is the surface where our objectifying representations find their limit.
The skin is naturally vulnerable because of its permeability. As Rudolf
Bernet explains,
Even a tight and thick skin has small and large holes that one
can adequately call openings. There are natural openings as
well as artificial or forced openings called wounds. Natural
openings are still subject, however, to being forced and
wounded. The natural openings allowing for a passage and
exchange between the inside and the outside of a body cannot
prevent the violence of a traumatic intrusion or expulsion.359
Levinas must have something like this in mind when he argues that
sensibility is vulnerability and exposure to the other. Bernet points out that
the singular nature of the skins involved in a particular instance of contact
lend their quality to the intersubjective encounter, and help to determine
whether the encounter is friendly or violent.360 This means that the skin, or
contact/proximity, cannot be deemed violent a priori. And if we are going to
allow Levinas to say that the sensitivity of the skinsensibility generallyis
susceptibility, then this condition must be understood as ambivalent. Above
all it should be maintained that my exposure to the other equally enables
and disables, figures and disfigures my body. A priori this exposure is neither
painful nor pleasurable.
Hopefully it is becoming clearer how and why the aesthetic dimension
of existence is basic to Levinass ontology of the body. In fact, we could
go so far as to affirm that aestheticsunderstood as the ontology of
aisthesismust be first philosophy for Levinas.361 The subjects primary
opening onto the other is the bodys sensibilitythat is, its capacity to
sense and be affected by the material it lives and dies from. Sensibility is the
condition of possibility for enjoyment, discomfort, and pain, and therefore
a condition of possibility for ipseity, or selfhood. It is this ipseity which is

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 173

interpellated by the Other and called into question. But this ipseity must
first be won through effort and labor before it can answer responsibly the
call of the Other.
We have seen that for Levinas sensation has an affective dimension, as is
connoted in the French sentir, and also names a distinct ontological event.
This event involves the passivity of the subject, on the one hand, and the
objectivity (transcendence) of the sensations which direct sensibility,
on the other. Levinass disqualification of the view that sensation is purely
subjective, something that happens inside the mind or only as a correlate
of consciousness, commits him to a form of ontological realism. Unlike
Kant or Husserl, whose methodological commitments should prevent them
from speaking about what lies beyond the bounds of the phenomenal,
Levinas breaks free from phenomenology to make metaphysical claims
about the non-intentional/transcendental realm of sensation. In fact, he
openly admits that these claims are metaphysical and beyond the purview
of phenomenological method. They are, however, not unintelligible: This is
the whole point, says Sandford, of Levinass method:
Levinass philosophical method therefore consists in a series
of metaphysical declarations apparently extrapolated from
and further supported by phenomenological evidences.
Metaphysical truths are revealed through phenomenology,
both in the sense that phenomenology allows one to encounter
them and that it functions verificationally after the event of
disclosure. In this way, the strong claim for the intelligibility
of transcendence is apparently based on, revealed through
or justified by the appeal to the phenomenology of the ethics
of affect.362
It is precisely because sensations come from outside that Levinas can
characterize sensibility as vulnerability. Indeed, he requires the externality of
sensation, and the corporeal vulnerability this implies, in order to prioritize
ethics over any other branch of philosophy. Or, as David Michael Levin has
said, The embodiment of the categorical imperative cannot be understood
until our way of thinking about the body undergoes a radical revision.363
If the ambivalence of sensibility is recognizedas I have arguedthen
the exigency of ethics becomes bound to the ontology of the body, and it

174 Chapter 4

becomes less clear which branch of philosophy enjoys primacy. Levinas


would have us believe that our bodies are constantly under attack from the
outside, and at times it seems as though he were arguing that intercorporeal
encounters are essentially violent. He speaks of our openness to exteriority
as the vulnerability of the skin exposed, in wounds and outrage and of
sensibility as
a nakedness more naked than that of the skin which, as form
and beauty, inspires the plastic arts, the nakedness of a skin
presented to contact, to the caress, which alwayseven,
equivocally, in voluptuousnessis suffering for the suffering of
the other. Uncovered, open like a city declared open upon the
approach of the enemy, the sensibility, prior to all will, action,
declaration, all taking up of positions, is vulnerability itself.364
Like a faithful phenomenologist, Levinas notes that this susceptibility is not
reducible to the physiological bodys causal relations. No, this susceptibility
is a passivity more passive than every passivity, which is to say, a radical
transcendental passivity. It is the aptitude to be beaten, to receive
blows. In vulnerability there then lies a relationship with the other which
causality does not exhaust, a relationship antecedent to being affected by a
stimulus.365
It is one of the virtues of Levinass analyses that they fully appreciate the
reality of violence. He keenly recognizes that an adequate account of alterity
is needed in order to render this reality intelligible. A conception of alterity
which acknowledges that some of our experiences do not submit to our
representational capacities, that some experiences resist what we can know
or think about them, is required to explain the inevitable encroachment of
bodily degeneration and death, for instance. Death comes from elsewhere,
and too quickly to register its face. Levinas writes in Totality and Infinity
(224/199-200):
The notion of a mortal but temporal being, apprehended
in the will differs fundamentally from every causality
leading to the idea of the causa sui. Such a being is exposed,
but also opposed to violence. Violence does not befall it as
an accident that befalls a sovereign freedom. The hold that

Sensibility, Susceptibility, and the Genesis of Individuals 175

violence has over this beingthe mortality of this beingis


the primordial fact.366
There is no need, however, to accept the susceptibility of the body as a
fundamental vulnerability. Of course, it is that too. But it is also a capacity
to be affected with joy or pleasure and to have the body enabled, in its
posture and kinaesthetic responses, by the sensations it receives from the
other. It is a capacity to be challenged by the outside, incited to exceed its
limits and gather strength or power. In short, the sensitivity of the body is
ambivalent a priori.
Our bodies are simultaneously constituted by ambivalence and alterity.
This lesson is in Levinas as well as Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty, writes
Dan Zahavi, can describe embodied self-awareness as a presentiment of
the Otherthe Other appears on the horizon of this self-experienceand
the experience of the Other as an echo of ones own bodily constitution.
For Merleau-Ponty, the Other can be received as such because its exteriority
mirrors my own exteriority. The reason I can experience Others is because
I am never so close to myself that the Other is completely and radically
foreign and inaccessible. I am always already a stranger to myself and
therefore open to Others.367 It is not necessary for alterity to be a matter
of pure transcendencea transcendence, it must be said, whose alignment
with humanism, anthropocentrism, and a particular religious tradition
excludes the nonhuman from ethical consideration368for it to command
ethical consideration. That our relation with otherness is ambivalent, and
that we can be enabled as well as disabled by that which we rely upon for
our very being, is enough to give us pause.
It is true that Levinas gives a richer, more complex description of
alterity than Merleau-Ponty. As well, he does much, contra Cartesian and
Kantian forms of subjectivity, to give a corporeal form to the self and,
consequently, the ethical imperative. Moreover, he gives us an account of
the immanent genesis of the subject that rivals that of Deleuze. But in the
process he sacrifices the actually ambivalent experience of embodiment in
the name of a transcendental responsibility whose hyperbolic foundation
leads to extreme claims about the vulnerability of the subject. This
hyperbole respects the reality of sensation while at the same time betraying
the plasticity of our sensibility. To avoid the ethical exclusivity of Levinass

176 Chapter 4

anthropocentrism, which is most pronounced in the moral privilege he


grants to human others, and to remain true to the ambivalence of our
sensuous existence, it is advisable for us to develop a more mundane and
faithful immanent form of the imperative, situating its force in the sensuous
economy in which existents, objects, elements, and environments interact.369
For this we need a conception of embodiment that avoids the excesses of
both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. That is, we need an adequate account of
the plasticity of the body.

Chapter 5
On Aesthetic Plasticity
we should try to discover how it is that subjects are
gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted
through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies,
materials, desires, thoughts, etc.
Foucault, Two Lectures

sensation is the master of deformations, the agent of bodily


deformations.
Deleuze, Francis Bacon

The argument so far has followed two general, intertwined trajectories:


one critical, the other constructive. The critical thread has argued that the
two visions of embodiment offered by Merleau-Ponty and Levinas are
inadequate for thinking how our bodies actually interact with the material
world. The constructive thread has assembled evidence which suggests that
both phenomenologists were cognizant of the function that sensation plays
in the constitution of experience and identity. The nature and function of
sensation, along with its difference from perception, has been adduced. In
this chapter I build upon the analyses of sensation and sensing given by

178 Chapter 5

Merleau-Ponty and Levinas in order to develop an account of embodiment


that reconciles the extremes of their respective views. Instead of reversibility
and susceptibility, my view features the plasticity of the body and argues
that the dynamism of plasticity is more true to the aesthetic dimension of
existence and the transactional nature of intercorporeal encounters.
Methodologically speaking, there is more than one way to defend
the bodys plasticity. Because the notion of plasticity is tacitly at work in
poststructuralist philosophers like Foucault and Deleuze, and increasingly
visible in the work of embodied cognition theorists, a wholesale assault on
the phenomenological body could be launched from a number of nonphenomenological camps. An antagonism of this sort could be construed
as a clash between modern and postmodern views of the body.370 Such a
neat division, however, does not do justice to the degree of overlap which
obtains between phenomenological and non-phenomenological accounts
of embodiment. This is why I have chosen for my defense of plasticity to
synthesize the insights of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas with a number of
non-phenomenologists, from Spinoza, James, and Dewey to Mark Johnson,
Manuel DeLanda, and Catherine Malabou. It should also be noted that
what I find most productive in the phenomenologists is not always what
they produce from a phenomenological perspective. In fact, as I have
noted in earlier chapters, it is often the phenomenological method itself
which constrains some of the most fertile insights stumbled upon by
Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, and what troubles any attempt to synthesize
phenomenology with other approaches to embodiment. Oftentimes it is
when these two thinkers are on the verge of transgressing the strictures
of phenomenology that their thinking takes off in metaphysically
daring directions.

The Meaning of Plasticity I


What does it mean for a body to be plastic and why is it necessary to
conceive the body in this way? The term has a popular aesthetic meaning,
as when we talk about plastic surgery or the plastic arts. But I am
not specifically concerned with either of these meanings. When I speak
about plasticity I intend the meaning that is now common currency in
the discourse of contemporary neuroscience, as well as cognitive and

On Aesthetic Plasticity 179

evolutionary theory. I first ran across the term in a text closer to my home
discipline, that is, while reading the philosophical psychology of William
James, who writes in The Principles of Psychology that plasticity broadly
means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence,
but strong enough not to yield all at once. Each relatively stable phase of
equilibrium in such a structure is marked by what we may call a new set of
habits.371 Plasticity in Jamess sense not only provides a useful means of
imagining the dynamics of brain and body, it also offers a way to think the
dynamic structural integrity of the embodied subject. When I use the term
integrity I do not mean it in the moral sense, but as someone who says,
The integrity of the building has been compromised by the earthquake.
The analogy between bodies and buildings is deliberate here. It is meant
to suggest the reciprocal determination of body and building, and the
structural homology of individual and environment.
Assuming with Merleau-Ponty that we simply are our bodies, we are
absolved from positing a self-identical core of subjectivity which would
remain untouched throughout any and all intercorporeal engagements,
be they social, physical, or cultural. Plasticity helps us work through many
of the questions that arise when we identify the subject with the body. In
the end the plastic body gives us a fully immanent version of subjectivity
without compelling us to grant the body an indeterminate fluidity that
would make it difficult to explain how stability emerges and is maintained.
There are empirical and practical reasons for favoring plasticity over
reversibility or susceptibility as the defining feature of the body. First, the
body disintegrates, decays, and dies. Its relation to other bodiesand
sometimes to itself, as in the case of autoimmune disordersis often
violent, as I have argued. Innumerable examples of irreversible situations
can be given. These are defined by the powerlessness of human beings in
the face of a materiality which burdens or exceeds them. As Ronald Bruzina
expresses it, human powerlessness is fundamentally that of being subject
to structures around and within itself that are not of a human individuals
own doing.372 A piano is pushed out a window and crushes someone on
the sidewalk below. An airplane plunges into the ocean and is obliterated
along with all of its passengers. These are situations wherein the bodies
involved are not on the verge of reversal: the person on the sidewalk has no

180 Chapter 5

chance of becoming the crusher, nor will the piano become the crushed,
although it will suffer some damage upon impact. Perhaps only the sidewalk
will suffer negligible harm, its capacity for resistance being greater than
the unfortunate bystander or instrument. The airline passengers will have
their perceptual capacities extinguished, and in a sense their bodies will
die, but the material reality which destroyed them will remain. Perhaps the
perceptual situation is reversible, but asymmetrical physical contact between
bodies powerful and powerless is certainly not. Our bodies, I would contend,
sense this asymmetry in themselves and build upon it when forming bonds
with other bodies.373
Now, I am not so foolish as to think that the images of falling pianos
and plunging airplanes alone stand as refutations of constructivist idealism
or correlationism. They are offered here, in one respect, as a metaphor of
the intractability of the material world. Additionally, they work to unsettle
our comfort with an idealism or phenomenology whose conventional
images portray an inquisitive observer gazing intently on some mediumsized domestic object. Objects, however, are not always so wieldy. And if
Meillassouxs argument for the necessity of contingency holds, neither
are the very laws governing the existence of these objects.374 In short, we
have reason to distrust the stability of appearance and the synchrony of
body and world.
Considered from a different angle the body is indeed a resilient thing.
It resists disintegration by nourishing itself, defends itself from assault, and
deftly assembles resources which help it postpone death. It fashions clothes
and designs shelters, devises means of repairing itself when wounded, and
takes measures to prevent further wounding. It gathers these resources from
its environment and from others; it is enabled by otherness just as much as it
can be disabled by it. It is certainly true that tragedy may befall the body at
any moment, so it is indeed a susceptible entity. But given the extraordinary
nature of tragedy, the threat of violence cannot be the ground upon which
the body is defined as a body. It is much more than a passivity: it preserves
itself and pushes itself to become more powerful; it adapts and evolves,
yes, but it also destroys and imposes form. These are Nietzsches lessons.375
That the body is threatened by violence and prone to disintegration, but at

On Aesthetic Plasticity 181

the same time enabled by what resists its efforts and movement, leads us
necessarily to consider the ethics and politics of plasticity.
A body whose integrity is plastic is definable by its thresholds. This
means, as we saw with Merleau-Pontys notion of style, that its identity is
constantly shifting and constituted by an indefinite and fragile disposition.
This disposition will either display typical effects, or the potential for these
effects will be virtually present, harbored in the body and actualizable under
the right conditions.376 Shifts in identity or the compromising of bodily
integrity will be induced by a breakdown in the bodys own maintenance
or by pressures exerted on its constitution by an external force. In both
cases what gets compromised is an alliance maintained between a collective
of bodies functioning together as a singular body (a friendship, political
demonstration, or soccer team) and conspiring together to reciprocally
determine each individual bodys identity. Such a view of identity obliges us
to imagine the substance of identity as fleeting and dependent rather than
enduring and self-sufficient. Individuals enjoy only a transitory autonomy, a
limited immunity from degeneration. As Mach asserts, The ego is as little
absolutely permanent as are bodies. That which we so much dread in death,
the annihilation of our permanency, actually occurs in life in abundant
measure.377 The meaning of death is likewise reoriented by this definition
of identity, which is why the hypothetical victims of the plane crash example
can be said to die only in a sense. One may die without actually becoming
a corpse, but one may become a corpse without technically dying.378

Composite Bodies
Spinoza employs the term ratio to describe the dynamic alliance that
composes corporeal identities. He speaks of identity thresholds as ratios
of motion and rest, speed and slowness.379 The body is not merely a figure
or style, but a system of relations governed by a specific principle of
relating, or ratio. Following on his heels Deleuze and Guattari elaborate
the Spinozan conception of bodily identity with concepts like assemblage,
machine, multiplicity, and body without organs. These concepts provide
an understanding of bodily identity that makes no appeal to an immutable
organic (biological, physiological, neuronal) structure; they leave the body
fully open to deformation and reconstitution, and therefore to the aleatory

182 Chapter 5

and to alterity. Spinoza begins to build the plastic body, while Deleuze and
Guattari draw out its complexity.
A body, for Spinoza, is never purely individual in an atomistic sense, for
an individual is always a composite or collective of bodies. What individuates
a body from the single substance (God, or Nature) in his monistic ontology
is the bodys effects, which are determined by its singularity. Spinoza defines
a singular thing as a thing that has a finite, determinate existence. If several
things concur in one act in such a way as to be all together the simultaneous
cause of one effect, I consider them all, in that respect, as one individual.380
In short, an individual is a singularity. A body, then, is individuated as this
body by what it can do or what it can effectuate materially (efficient causes),
psychologically (affects), politically (uprisings, policings), and so forth.
The capacity of the body to create a singular effect, or what we can call the
bodys power, is always variable and vulnerable to disintegration because
this power only subsists as long as the collective of bodies working together
to create a singular effect maintain their particular ratio of motion and rest.
Spinoza writes:
When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude
form close contact with one another through the pressure of
other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or
different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation
of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be
united with one another and all together to form one body
or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things
through this union of bodies.381
Now, this ratio is not precise: it is plastic, which is to say its identity is
marked by a precarious formal variability, or threshold of integrity.382 The
form is not what determines the body ultimately, it is the kinetics of the
bodys composition that constitutes its individuality. The important thing,
Deleuze tells us, is to see individuality as a complex relation between
differential velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles.
This is what Deleuze calls Spinozas kinetic proposition.383 Lets call it the
ecological account of bodies.
Deleuze distills the Spinozan problematic of bodies into the question,
What is a body capable of? He poses the problem in this way in order to

On Aesthetic Plasticity 183

suggest two things: (1) to know what a body does is to know what it
is; and (2) the power of the body is unknown to us, so we are far from
fathoming the possibilities for action, change, and enhancement that new
technologies and new modes of collective existence have in store for us. I
am thinking in particular of human-machine interfaces, participatory art,
prostheses, genetic manipulation, and the whole range of what Deleuze
and Guattari call unnatural participations.384 Deleuzes question also
pinpoints another ontological claim advanced by Spinoza: bodies just are
their capacity to affect and be affected. Deleuze writes, a body affects other
bodies, or is affected by other bodies; it is this capacity for affecting and
being affected that also defines a body in its individuality.385 This notion of
individuality yields a new method of classifying things, one whose principle
of differentiation is produced immanently. What a body is becomes less
important than what it can do.386
This new method prefers a genetic or evolutionary conception of
form to the ancient hylomorphism. It regards the genesis of form as
initiated by contact between heterogeneous material elements, which
results in multiplicities that endogenously give rise to singular bodies.387
In this ontology the structure and genesis [of the body] are in principle
indiscernible.388 Deweys definition of aesthetic form is representative
here: Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry
the experience of an event, object, scene, and situation to its own integral
fulfillment.389 It is crucial that this formulation acknowledges the priority of
circumstance over teleology in the determination of structure, and locates its
genesis in the materials and energies that compose an aesthetic event. The
event, at bottom, is rhythmic.390 Similarly, Deleuze writes of how
relations of speed and slowness are realized according to
circumstances, and the way in which these capacities for being
affected are filled. For they always are, but in different ways,
depending on whether the present affects threaten the thing
(diminish its power, slow it down, reduce it to the minimum),
or strengthen, accelerate, and increase it: poison or food?
with all the complications, since a poison can be a food for
part of the thing considered.391

184 Chapter 5

The point here is that the maintenance of corporeal identity is not only a
matter of intersubjective/intercorporeal relations. Identity is also dependent
on environmental conditions and the nourishment they provide (or fail to
provide)the ambivalence of the environment is recognized as fundamental
to corporeal power and action.
One of the advantages of working with the Spinozan definition of
bodies endorsed by Deleuze is that it frees us from entrenched binaries like
artificial/natural, animate/inanimate, organic/inorganic, sentient/insentient.
For Spinoza and Deleuze all bodies belong to the same ontological
plane and can be evaluated in terms that do not force us to distinguish
between, say, the human and nonhuman or living and nonliving. This is the
advantage of a flat ontology of bodies.392 As a consequence of undoing
old binaries we are free to imagine new composite bodies and, therefore,
new possibilities for collective experience and bodily identity. Hybridity and
community become the norm. As Elizabeth Grosz puts it,
[Deleuze and Guattari] provide an altogether different way
of understanding the body in its connections with other
bodies, both human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate,
linking organs and biological processes to material objects
and social practices while refusing to subordinate the body to
a unity or a homogeneity of the kind provided by the bodys
subordination to consciousness or to biological organization.
Following Spinoza, the body is regarded as neither a locus
for a consciousness nor an organically determined entity; it
is understood more in terms of what it can do, the things it
can perform, the linkages it establishes, the transformations
and becomings it undergoes, and the machinic connections
it forms with other bodies, what it can link with, how it can
proliferate its capacities.393
The model of embodiment described by Grosz regards the body, in Deleuze
and Guattaris language, as a machinic assemblage. This concept is
democratic insofar as it counts a wide range of phenomena as bodies and
refrains from privileging one kind of body or relation over another. There
is nothing special about a naturally occurring body; human bodies are not
elevated above their vegetal counterparts. Any body type can join forces

On Aesthetic Plasticity 185

with a different body type and initiate new identities, new effects. Corporeal
difference is a matter of degrees of complexity; what matters most is the
effects and affects produced by the body, irrespective of its compositional
heritage. The concept of assemblage has far-reaching consequences for
ecological thinking.

Assemblages and Machines


There is an assemblage theory of bodies available in the literature on
embodied/enactive cognition. Take the work of Andy Clark. In Being
There Clark develops the concept of scaffolding in order to demonstrate
that our minds are not locked in our heads, but extended throughout the
interobjective environment. The external environment provides support,
scaffolding, for the body in countless forms, from simple implements like
pencils, paper, and photographs to languages and digital storage devices.
This way of thinking is common to the extended mind hypothesis. As
Clark argues, these external structures function so as to complement our
individual cognitive profiles and to diffuse human reason across wider
and wider social and physical networks whose collective computations
exhibit their own special dynamics and properties.394 No includes a
helpful discussion of virtual representation that relies on something like
scaffolding when he writes, Off-loading internal processing onto the world
simplifies our cognitive lives and makes good engineering and evolutionary
sense.395 Scaffolding serves as the network within which individuals work
out solutions to problems, but from what we have said so far, it would be
misleading to regard it as external to the body. And this is Clarks point:
individuals cannot be understood as standing apart from the scaffolding
that supports their behaviorthey are extended throughout, and in a real
sense emerge out of or are the scaffolding of their environment.396 The
extended minds plasticity is what allows the body to adaptively integrate
and design scaffolding that aids in problem-solving. Understanding how
our brains design and inhabit the vast assemblage of networks, institutions,
societies, and myriad dynamic systems in society is the present task of
cognitive science.397
The assemblage theory of bodies forms the basis of what Jane Bennett
calls distributive or confederate agency. In her view agency in an

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assemblage is distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field,


rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective
produced (only) by human efforts.398 Agency is here equivalent to efficacy.
Any efficacious thing qualifies as an agent, which means that any thing
whatsoever that makes a difference in the world possesses agency, even if
that thing cannot be cited as the source of its agency. Since every thing
makes some difference, however small, every thing bears the mark of
agency.399 Bennett writes in Vibrant Matter:
This understanding of agency does not deny the existence
of that thrust called intentionality, but it does see it as less
definitive of outcomes. It loosens the connections between
efficacy and the moral subject, bringing efficacy closer to the
idea of the power to make a difference that calls for response.
And this power, I contend along with Spinoza and others, is a
power possessed by nonhuman bodies too.400
This radically democratic theory of bodies disintegrates the plausibility
of classical liberal autonomy and disperses responsibility across the entire
field of being.
Assemblages are essentially multiplicities whose identity is determined
by the unified effects they produce. Their identity is in their plurality. If
bodies are assemblages, then they are less like fixed structures and more like
heterogeneous events that derive their consistency/integrity from a certain
threshold for change. This threshold is governed by the active conjunctions
which make up the assemblage. Assemblages are always provisional, nonhierarchical, and precariously organized.401 They subsist only as long as they
actively maintain their constitutive ratio of motion and rest, that is, their
intensity.402 Following my unorthodox reading of Levinas in the last chapter
I would insist that this process occurs at the level of sensibility. An intensity
is a bodily eventa passion, affection, sensationdirectly related to the
capacity to enter into relations of movement and rest, as Massumi puts
it.403 Intensity differentiates the bodys power, makes it stand out, and allows
it to take up a position. Intensity can be generated in myriad ways and
with a variety of inorganic and organic components. Whatever accumulates
can increase in intensity. Think of a wolf pack or a school of fish darting
through the sea. These are natural events, and as such would seem to be

On Aesthetic Plasticity 187

understandable only as governed by fixed natural law. As assemblages,


however, this is not necessarily the case. Assemblages are dynamic unities,
immanently organized and constructed ad hochaecceities.
Deleuze and Guattari conscript the medieval concept of haecceity
because it allows them to think identity and individuation in terms of events,
intensities, and becoming. A haecceity, in short, is a specific accidental
form.404 That is, it is a historically emergent and singular form. It contrasts
clearly with the notion of substance, substantial form, person, subject, thing,
and so forth, each of which is held to be self-contained and in some sense
necessary unto itself. Thinking along with Spinoza they explain how one
defines the body as a haecceity, here presented in cartographic terms:
A body is not defined by the form that determines it nor as a
determinate substance or subject nor by the organs it possesses
or the functions it fulfills. On the plane of consistency, a body
is defined only by a longitude and a latitude: in other words
the sum total of the material elements belonging to it under
given relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness
(longitude); the sum total of the intensive affects it is capable
of at a given power or degree of potential (latitude). Nothing
but affects and local movements, differential speeds.405
The concept of haecceity enables us to think of individuation, and therefore
identity, as a completely contingent intercorporeity or event of plasticity.
It helps us escape the substance-ontological view that sees historical
emergence as inessential to identity. It also aids us in articulating a theory
of identity which balances the fluid as well as (meta)stable elements of
the body, and refers these elements to the immanence of cosmological,
evolutionary, and human history.406 Following Spinoza, Deleuze and
Guattari provide a number of resources for thinking corporeal plasticity,
although at times they push the fluidity of their notion of a body
without organs to an untenable extreme. Even though the body can
attempt to escape its organic constitution, it is never completely devoid of
organization or, at least, a minimal set of habits. The body without organs
remains an ideal.
Whether or not a body without organs is achievable, what we have seen
open up so far in this chapter is the potential meaning of individual and

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body. What a body is, as well as what it can do, all of a sudden become
radically open questions. The bodys power becomes free to proliferate, and
the individual free to develop, but always under the precarious and singular
ecological conditions regulating the assemblage of bodies. The practical
consequences of conceiving the body in this way will become clearer as
we progress.
Equally important to the Deleuzean/Guattarian development of the
composite body, or assemblage, is its machinic feature. In Anti-Oedipus
a machine is defined as what introduces interruptions into otherwise
continuous flows of material (hyle): a machine is a system of interruptions
or breaks. The orifices of our bodies are machines because they interrupt
the flow of air (mouth) and the flow of sound (ear) and the flow of feces
(anus).407 The sensory apparatus of our bodies can be seen as a complex
machine insofar as the senses function as a multifaceted device for cutting
up the manifold of sensory material flowing through the body. At the same
time as it cuts the machinic body is apt to create new linkages, that is, new
assemblages composed of intensive relations and affective transactions.
Again, these linkages are ad hoc, a form of bricolage that potentially, if
Clark is correct, opens our bodies to episodes of deep and transformative
restructuring, in which new equipment (both physical and mental) can
become quite literally incorporated into the thinking and acting systems that
we identify as minds and persons.408
In explicating his assemblage theory of society Manuel DeLanda
includes a helpful illustration of the formation of personal identity. If
territorialization denotes a process that increases the internal homogeneity
of a persons corporeal identity, then identity may be deterritorialized
not only by loss of stability but also by augmentation of capacities.
The following images bring to life the transformative potential of the
machinic body:
When a young child learns to swim or ride a bicycle, for
example, a new world suddenly opens up for experience,
filled with new impressions and ideas. The new skill is
deterritorializing to the extent that it allows the child to
break with past routine by venturing away from home in a
new vehicle, or inhabiting previously forbidden spaces like

On Aesthetic Plasticity 189

the ocean. New skills, in short, increase ones capacity to


affect and be affected, or to put it differently, increase ones
capacities to enter into novel assemblages, the assemblage that
the human body forms with a bicycle, a piece of solid ground
and a gravitational field, for example.409
Machines engage in transactions that assemble disparate elements.
This means that they carve into and interface with material from diverse
ontological domains. Think of a soldier with a titanium prosthetic arm or a
person with an online avatar. Think of a kid whose pleasure is generated by
an imaginary friend or videogame. Think of a guy whose masochistic desires
require leather or stone or plants for him to reach sexual satisfaction.410
These people are machines; their identity, materially composite.
There is a certain technique or artisanship to the machinic process,
one which the body already possesses insofar as it effortlessly hooks into
environments that produce natural, artificial, physical, linguistic, imaginary,
and abstract effects.411 Since the body is never without a nourishing
environment composed of disparate elements, or prostheses/tools, we
could reasonably assert that it takes no stretch of the imagination to see
that the human body just is a complex machine, if not in La Mettries sense,
then definitely in Deleuze and Guattaris. Its machinic infrastructure is
constructed by a team of physical, phenomenological, and ecological agents
united by a principle of individuation proper to neither domain in particular.
Although they recognize the machinic potential of the body, it seems to me
that both Levinas and Merleau-Ponty refuse to endorse the view that the
body is nothing more than a complex machine. Both phenomenologists
recognize that subjects are partially constituted by their sociolinguistic,
historical, and physical milieus, but the thesis affirming that the structure of
the subject is completely dependent on a field of material forces that literally
assemble the identity of the body is missing from their texts.412

The Meaning of Plasticity II


Before going any further I want to gather a fuller account of the meaning
of plasticity and suggest some of its implications for embodiment and
identity theory. This will enable us to understand the machinic body in its

190 Chapter 5

plasticity and see how the integration of body and environment is critical to
understanding corporeal plasticity. Additionally, it will prepare us to see how
the bodys plasticity is determined by its aesthetic constitution, that is, the
history of its sensory apparatus.
If it is at least plausible to claim that the modern account of embodiment
is marked by the view that there is a substantial core or immutable structure
to the body, whereas the postmodern account is characterized by a desire
to see the body vanish into an anonymous field of desire, pleasure, and flux,
then the concept of plasticity belongs to neither historical period.413 Given
this historical partition it would seem that Merleau-Ponty belongs in neither
the modern nor postmodern camp, for he downplays bodily anonymity just
as much as he contests the modernists substance ontology. Regardless, he
does not deliver us a plastic body. The dynamic of his reversible body is
more akin to the mechanics of elasticity. Elasticity can be understood by
considering a rubber band. The rubber band is flexible and deformable,
but in the absence of resistance or external force it tends toward a specific
formal state. Accordingly, elasticity does not properly describe a structure
open to permanent deformation. Permanent deformation means breakage
and the elimination of the precise disposition which constitutes the rubber
bands elasticity. The disappearance of its elasticity is equivalent to death
for the rubber band. In other words, its structure is not identical to its
historical genesis. From the perspective of elasticity the bands structure
is prescribed by the rubber band type. Similarly for Merleau-Pontys lived
body: its structure tends toward a certain coherence that is prescribed
by the lived body type. Insofar as the lived body is flexible within certain
normative limits, the Merleau-Pontyan body is best conceived on the model
of elasticity.
Merleau-Pontys lived body possesses a number of structural features
which exhibit a dispositional elasticity, and whose absence would entail the
impossibility of subjectivity. These include the features of consciousness
(for instance: intentionality, perspectival perception), the body schema,
the movement of transcendence or ability (the I can, which effectively
operates as a transcendental norm and therefore makes disability a derivative
mode of comportment), and the general tendency toward convergence
attributed to perception.414 Throughout each of its engagements with the

On Aesthetic Plasticity 191

world, other bodies, alterity in general, the reversible body maintains its
relative stability with a number of quasi-transcendent, admittedly malleable,
structures. They are not indefinitely malleable, however, which would render
them plastic. If anything, their malleability is always seeking to return to the
equilibrium point which we defined earlier as body-world synchronization.
Plasticity, on the other hand, pursues no such telos.
Merleau-Pontys view of embodiment is accomplished only by
quarantining the objective body and suspending the question of how its
physiology and materiality interfere with, as well as support, the lived
bodys phenomenological world of perception. As I have been arguing, what
threatens to undo or undermine the bodys elasticity is the sensory fields
immediate contact with the bodys sensorium, along with the material
composition of the body more generally. In other words, the anonymous
aesthetic life of the body is the locus of deformation and disfiguration,
or what Panagia calls a zone of indistinction.415 This is not to say that
Merleau-Ponty lacks any notion of plasticity. On the contrary, both style
and habit (perhaps the body schema, too?) display a marked plasticity. My
point is that his text runs the risk of pathologizing plasticity and normalizing
elasticity, and this in the interest of drawing a distinctionfundamental
in his viewbetween the lived body and the objective body. We must
take care to recognize the plasticity of the phenomenal, as well as the
material, levels and not to regard these two levels as regulated by different
ontological principles.
Plasticity contrasts, and is designed to replace, both infinite malleability
and immutable substantiality. It is, at bottom, neither stability nor instability,
but metastability. Remarking on current brain research, Catherine
Malabou writes that
the word plasticity has two basic senses: it means at once the
capacity to receive form (clay is called plastic, for example)
and the capacity to give form (as in the plastic arts or in plastic
surgery). Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts
to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, formable,
and formative at the same time.416

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This conception of plasticity is not meant to suggest that the brain is merely
flexible, for as Malabou goes on to show, the brain is at once prone to
historical deformations and capable to effecting historical deformations.
To be flexible is to receive a form or impression, to be able
to fold oneself, to take the fold, not to give it. To be docile, to
not explode. Indeed, what flexibility lacks is the resource of
giving form, the power to create, to invent or even to erase an
impression, the power to style. Flexibility is plasticity minus
its genius.417
The brain is docile to a degree, but this docility is simultaneously
tempered by tolerance and creation, taken together as a single trait:
creative tolerance. Our brains are, to an extent, evolutionarily determined,
but it is this inescapable determination that allows for a possible margin
of improvisation that is at once singularly determined and historically
singularizing.418 Every bodys experience will likewise be singular, which
means that no two bodies are capable of the same encounters.
Plasticity describes the simultaneous determinacy and indeterminacy of
morphogenesis. In other words, it names the potential of the body to have
its initial determination transformed indefinitely.419 Even if it is granted that
the human brain displays a universal anatomy, or that its physical makeup
is structurally invariable, learning and memoryhistory in general
guarantees that no two brains will be the same. In their history repetition
and habit play a considerable role, and this reveals that the response of a
nervous circuit is never fixed. Plasticity thus adds the functions of artist
and instructor in freedom and autonomy to its role as sculptor, argues
Malabou.420 The singular identity of an individual brain emerges from that
gap opened up between freedom and determination, which is to say, in the
space of history. The constitution of the individual is determined by how the
bodys mechanisms are transformed by the experiences it enacts or suffers.
Plasticity is the eventlike dimension of the mechanical, which
between determinism and freedom, designates all the types
of transformation deployed between the closed meaning
of plasticity (the definitive character of form) and its open
meaning (the malleability of form). It does this to such a
degree that cerebral systems today appear as self-sculpted

On Aesthetic Plasticity 193

structures that, without being elastic or polymorphic, still


tolerate constant self-reworking, differences in destiny, and the
fashioning of a singular identity.421
Our brains are machines, but machines that repair themselves and
reprogram themselves according to information they receive from their
surroundings. The identities they achieve strike a balance between passivity
and activity, infinite possibility and finite determination. At the end of the
day, however, their constitution gives way to the exigencies of the material
world, leaving only the trace of their singular destiny and returning to the
anonymous material of being.
A similar line of thinking is pursued in Foucaults work on history and
embodiment. He chooses docility to describe the body invested with
power and disciplinary techniques, but the manner in which he thinks
docility resonates with the concept of plasticity. The docile bodies populating
Discipline and Punish seem, on the one hand, merely pliable, or flexible
in Malabous sense. They are made to take on a pre-programmed form,
rendered automatic or mechanical (territorialized) by the machinations of
state power or biopower. Foucault writes of how
the soldier has become something that can be made; out
of formless clay, an inapt body, the machine required can
be constructed; posture is gradually corrected; a calculated
constraint runs slowly through each part of the body,
mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning
silently into the automatism of habit.422
But this is only half the story. The body would not take on this apparent
automatism were it not for its capacity to take on any number of historically
determined forms. When Foucault says that the body has to be broken
down and rearranged, he is acknowledging that disciplinary techniques
must grapple with corporeal determinations that offer resistance and harbor
their own power. Oksala has pointed out, against Butler and others, that
it is the body as formed which offers its own resistances to reformation.423
In Foucaults words, Discipline increases the forces of the body and
diminishes these same forces. In short, it dissociates power from the
body and transforms the body into an aptitude or capacity.424 Recalling
Jamess definition of plasticity, the disciplined body is given a structure

194 Chapter 5

strong enough to resist power, but weak enough to yield to a sufficiently


technical and more intense power.
The event-like structure of the body is given further expression in
Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, where Foucault explicitly rejects the view
that the body is an ahistorical, physiologically-determined entity: The body
is molded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken down by the rhythms
of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food or values, through eating
habits or moral laws; it constructs resistances. Put negatively, its history is
without constants.425 Formulated positively: the body is plastic. This does
not mean that the body is reducible to a series of oppressive events, or that
the forms it assumes do not constitute real dispositions or determinate
capacities for action. It means that any particular disposition is contingent
and susceptible to change, whereas dispositional plasticity is structurally
basic to embodiment.426
Malabous investigation of plasticity implicitly follows, in the
philosophical tradition, the naturalistic insights of James and Dewey. She
rarely, if ever, writes about either thinker. She discovers plasticity in Hegel;
I have been arguing that it is basic to Spinozism too, a point she notes in
Ontology of the Accident.427 What she says about the brain can be profitably
broadened to describe the constitution of the body. This does not lead
to a reductive physicalism. Phenomenology, and the phenomenological
sympathies of the pragmatists, help us avoid that course. For instance,
Bernard Andrieu, following Francisco Varela and others, contributes to
a program called neurophenomenology, which focuses on the material
genesis and plasticity of cognition while considering equally legitimate the
phenomenological and neuroscientific descriptions of this process. Central
to this dynamic materialism is an updated notion of Merleau-Pontys
concept of flesh, which Andrieu says defines the historic construction
of the nervous system through the interaction of the body with the world
and the progressive embodiment of these incorporations.428 The temporal
dimension of the construction of the body is linked to the principle
of plasticity, which says that the body must first be understood as an
interaction with its environment because it is itself the receptive matter both
informed and informing.429 Merleau-Ponty may not have been willing to
subscribe to this materialist program for the flesh, but his thinking does

On Aesthetic Plasticity 195

exhibit sympathy for the kind of mutual formation described by Andrieu


and Malabou. Once again, this is evident in his conception of habit.

Habit, Circuit, Territory


Recall that for Merleau-Ponty habits are like the bodys original prostheses.
The idea that habit is first nature is in fact a point found in James, although
the American is not Merleau-Pontys source. Habits offer a metastability to
the body without fixing it absolutely. They render the body automatic to a
degree, but this automatism is never complete. There is some room left for
freedom, but what this freedom entails is left for discussion in the following
chapter. The body is not born with a set of specific habits, but almost
immediately adopts habits which endow it with a specific integrity and allow
it to negotiate its situations with relative ease.
Habits belong among the historical a priori which condition perception
and action; they arrange and rearrange the body schema, while leaving the
body open to receive new habits.430 Habits are not just passively received,
however: they are projected out into the environment as actions whose
repetition wears down the environment in specific ways. Conversely,
repetition wears upon the actor. The possibilities for habituation are limited
by the effects of habit introduced into the layout of the environment. As
Casey writes, the power of orientation (Merleau-Ponty) we call our habitus
is correlated to the kinaesthetic situation we call our habitat.431 Now, I
think a general conception of habit is essential for understanding corporeal
plasticity. In fact, we might say that habit is emblematic of plasticity, but it
is not sufficient to keep our discussion of habit at the level of perception,
without serious consideration of its material aspect. Otherwise, habit
becomes a structure of the body that deals with material conditions, while
remaining immaterial itself. We saw in our earlier discussion that an account
of habit is provided by the pragmatists and we turn to them now to consider
habit from a naturalistic perspective, one which is not incompatible with,
but rather supplemental to, the phenomenological.
In Jamess The Principles of Psychology habituation takes hold in the
neural network of the brain. And it is precisely this networks plasticity that
enables the body to acquire habits. The physics of plasticity, in this case,
implies that the nervous system is susceptible to a series of habit sets which

196 Chapter 5

lend it its structure at a given historical point. Each successive phase of the
systems development contains a specific integrity which resists alteration
while at the same time remaining susceptible to environmental influence.432
The influence of the bodys sensory life carves pathways into its nervous
system, predisposing it to particular patterns of behavior which correspond
to these pathways.433 We now know that these pathways are the locus of
the body schema, which Clark describes as a suite of neural settings that
implicitly (and non-consciously) define a body in terms of its capabilities
for action.434 The plasticity of the neural network is what enables the
body schema to change over time as it genuinely incorporates, and not merely
uses, the instruments that dilate (Merleau-Pontys term) the bodysubjects world.
Habits, then, exhibit internal/physiological and external/environmental
aspects.435 Neither of these can be reduced when considering the identity of
the body. On the one hand, the neural pathways recorded in the material of
the body physically determine the range of actions and passions the body
is capable of at any given time. On the other hand, the range of behaviors
the body exhibits at a specified point in its life determine its style and make
it recognizable as the individual it is. The variability of this stylewhich
may result from self-reflection or environmental changes, for instance
introduces a degree of indeterminacy that can effect an alteration of the
bodys habit set.
Allowing for the reality of creativity, we must not overestimate the
power of the will to alter the bodys habits. When the will is set against the
force of habit as the agent of rehabituationand this is even more the case
when habit is localized in the brainone runs the risk of reinforcing the
dualism of master mind and servant body. Carlisle leans in this direction
by suggesting awareness as the remedy for undesirable habits. She
writes, Habits carry a momentum that must be countered by an opposing
medium.436 Awareness involves attending to the transitive sensations left
unremarked in habitual action. It contains the power to unconceal habits,
and so to weaken and eventually unravel them. But if sensations actually
operate below the level of perception, or attention, then the possibility of
bringing them to attention becomes suspect, if not impossible, as does the
freedom to choose between awareness or obliviousness to ones living,

On Aesthetic Plasticity 197

breathing experience.437 The covert nature of sensation leaves consciousness


in a state of perpetual unawareness. The option of bringing sensation, and
the habits informed by it, to consciousness is thereforecompromised.
Just as the neural network is a kind of circuit along which habits flow, the
behavioral aspect of habits can also be regarded as a circuit. Doing so allows
us to see how the habits each one of us adopts can come to constitute who
we are at the most fundamental level.
Habits economize our actions by locking us into certain behavioral
patterns, while also releasing our attention to explore new modes of action.
Jamess description of habitual circuits of behavior is as mechanical as it
is phenomenological. In action grown habitual, what instigates each new
muscular contraction to take place in its appointed order is not a thought
or a perception, but the sensation occasioned by the muscular contraction
just finished.438 The idea here is that habits are chains of sensations and
muscular responses, set in motion by a single impulse. The sensations occur
below the level of conscious attention, but this does not mean that they are
not registered by the body. Indeed, they are situated somewhere between the
physiological and phenomenological: that they are more than unconscious
nerve-currents seems certain, for they catch our attention if they go
wrong.439 Quoting a certain Schneider, James dubs habits processes of
inattentive feeling.440 We might call them circuits of inattention.
Favoring a more holistic representation of the habitual act, the
phenomenologist will want to downplay the imperceptible and autoreflexive elements of Jamess description of habit. Interestingly, it is the
phenomenologist who would provide us with an expansive description
of the series of sensations and muscular contractions which comprise a
given habitual behavior. The key difference between the mechanical and
phenomenological accounts of a circuit of behavior rests with the latters
insistence on the intentionality motivating the circuit and the formers
insistence on sensation as the motor of action. There is no reason why
we cannot regard habits as motivated by intentional aims but proceeding
mechanically, however. To do so we must admit a certain autonomy
that is, a degree of unconscious activityto the sensations propelling
the mechanism.

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Jamess account of habitual circuits leads us to see that our corporeal


identities, insofar as they are comprised of sets of habits, are made up of
a series of responses correlated with a series of sensations. In other words,
our bodys integrity is partially determined by the sensory circuits to which
it responds. These circuits have aesthetic, phenomenological, affective, and
unconscious elements. They constitute the largely anonymous substratum
of our everyday lives. Of course we carve out some of our own circuits,
but we just as often adopt them from the rituals and routines of culture.
We may commute, dine, and shop like everyone else, but we might also
invent, collaborate, and produce like no other. These rituals and routines
find themselves recorded in the musculature of our bodies and driven
by the mundane sensations of everyday life. These circuits coalesce into
a system that subtracts from the abundance of incoming sensations and
outgoing efforts required to sustain life. They make up what Schneider calls
our bodys attitude441 and provide an analogue to what we have called
proprioception. As Massumi shows, the habitual autopilot of our daily
navigation is linked to the bodys proprioception, and is predominantly a
non-cognitive orienting.442 Our bodys attitude, individuality, orientationin
short, its very animationemerges from its habitual economy. Everything
hangs on whether the impetus of this economy is intentional, nonintentional, or a combination of both.
To better capture the complexity and diversity of our identities, the
notion of circuit can be generalized and applied to all aspects of our
existence. We can speak of political and moral circuits, for example, which
might include the patterns of thought, action, and speech typical of a
particular political ideology or moral framework.443 These circuits, as plastic
structures, display a relative stability. An analysis of any social circuit would
have to include consideration of its sensory and affective content, for these
are what regulate individuals and keeps them attached to the circuit, even
when their attachments result from a diminished or indifferent concern for
the circuits value. It is arguable that, although we are quasi-automatically
attached to our habits, we remain attached to them only insofar as they
retain a degree of importance for us. Importance can come from the
understanding, yes, but ultimately importance can only dictate our actions if
we are passionate about it.444 What we are passionate about is what gives our

On Aesthetic Plasticity 199

body incomparable pleasure and draws it near, or what infests our body with
frustration, rage, or pain, thus repelling it. In short, our affective responses
keep us locked into a circuit of behavior or induce us to switch to another
circuit. Affects are a currency traded in the habitual economy.
In contrast with the phenomenological notion of an existential field we
can think of the totality of the circuits which orient our individual lives as
defining our territory, while considering each individual habit as a milieu.445
These terms work in tandem and derive from the work of Deleuze and
Guattari. A territory is roughly demarcated and abides by a specific set of
laws; it is a stratified and policed assemblage. Habits are stratifications of
the body, while its automatic aspects are symptomatic of its territorialized
or coded disposition. As DeLanda explains, territorialization is a process
which increases the internal homogeneity of an assemblage. It can be
accomplished through exclusion, profiling, segregation, regulation, and
so forth. Coding is a second reinforcement of homogenization and can
be witnessed in our genes and in our language.446 A milieu, by contrast, is
defined by its instability and liminality: a milieu occurs between two clearly
defined spaces, like a border or threshold, and maintains only a relative or
fleeting stability. While dependent on the homogeneity of its environment,
a habit is like a milieu in that it is susceptible to deformation or
deterritorialization. Habits maintain their integrity by virtue of the stability
of environmental conditions, but they are not fully determined by them.
Deleuze and Guattari consider milieus in terms of rhythm and haecceity,
two concepts we have dealt with already. The unfamiliarity of the concept
of milieu can be mitigated here by comparing it with Deweys theories of
form and growth. Together they give us a non-phenomenological way of
understanding the sensory link between body and environment. Deweys
theory focuses on the qualitative and aesthetic dimensions of embodiment
and, not unlike Levinas, offers an account of the alimentary function
of sensation.
Considering how they invest the bodies populating them, we see
that territories, or territorialities (habitual constellations of affects and
patterns of movement), are not very different from what we have been
calling circuits.447 A territory lays down laws or codes which organize and
render obedient the bodies inhabiting its space. The affective component of

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territoriality is, in John Protevis words, inherently political: bodies are part
of an ecosocial matrix of other bodies, affecting them and being affected by
them; affect is part of the basic constitution of bodies politic.448 This is why
we must always ask whether the affective circuits of territories (or bodies
politic) increase or decrease the power of the bodies that inhabit them. What
feels important inside the territory?
Territories gain strength when the qualities of a milieu, or its rhythm,
are forced to express the marks/coordinates of the territory, when the
nomos of the body politic is embodied in the ethos of those bodies which
constitute it. This is a performative act, the signature of the territory.449
Territorialization occurs when an otherwise non-signifying set of qualities
(milieu) is made to signify or represent a particular style: One puts ones
signature on something just as one plants ones flag on a piece of land.450 A
birdsong, or refrain, works in this way. The birdsong delimits a territory by
marking the sonic boundaries of the birds property. This is accomplished
by a little tune or melodic formula (a meme) whose performance enacts
the territorialization. In the same way, our bodies come to function by
innumerable cultural refrains, some of which we enact for ourselves, like the
frightened child who, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under
his breath.451 Like any body whose posture or gesture reproduces the body
language of a particular cultural setting, the child builds a little space of
comfort around him with a familiar sound. The sound shelters him from the
indeterminacy haunting his imagination.
Despite the fixity of territory, bodies and spaces display characteristics
which oppose and undo territorial codes. Improvisation, for instance.
Improvisation, or any chance encounter, is made possible by the cracks
in territories which Deleuze and Guattari call milieus. A milieu is like the
unstable and indistinct, but not inconsistent, qualitative dimension of a
territory. In a word, it is the territorys heterogeneity. Just as territorialization
must enlist the qualities of milieus, milieus must rely upon territories for
the formal expression of their individual styles. The dialectical relation
here is not pure, however, because milieus take ontological priority over
territories. The territory is the product of a territorialization of milieus
and rhythms.452 Milieus bear within themselves rhythms which produce
their identities. The rhythm of a milieu is its own code.453 It must, however,

On Aesthetic Plasticity 201

be noted thatgiven what has been said about assemblagesthis rhythm


is never proper to a milieu, but resonates between two or more milieus.
The rhythm is a haecceity, an intensive threshold which is constantly
produced and reproducedby a movement of involutionby the difference
or in-between that constitutes the milieu. It is this difference that is
rhythmic, not the repetition, which nevertheless produces it.454 Milieus
present the transactional space or passage between two heterogeneously
coded stabilities, the interior milieu of impulses and the exterior milieu of
circumstances,455 for instance. As a threshold between inside and outside,
a body operates as a milieu and is prone to the same kinds of instability,
determination, co-optation, and coding.

The Precious Part of Plasticity


The difficult conceptuality of Deleuze and Guattari can be substituted, at
the risk of oversimplification, with the naturalistic presentation given in
Deweys work on habit. Following James, Dewey defines habit as a process
that is, in a word, plastic. Dewey explicitly presents two phenomena that are
for the most part only implied by the phenomenologists: material dependence
and material growth. It is true that Levinas gets at these aspects of existence
in his notion of living from, but his analysis fails to consider dependence
from the perspective of natural life and is virtually silent, as is MerleauPonty, on the growth of the body.456
In Human Nature and Conduct Dewey speaks about the plasticity of
impulse, whereas in Democracy and Education he considers growth in terms
of plasticity as well as dependence. In the former text, plasticity prima facie
denotes a state of complete indeterminacy, as though our impulses were
an unrestrained chaos of drives waiting to be channeled into deliberate
behavior. But we quickly learn that plasticity signifies for Dewey an original
modifiability that is initially determined by its interactions with the
environment. Plasticity, then, signifies neither pure novelty nor pure docility,
neither activity nor passivity: the most precious part of plasticity consists
in ability to form habits which are (1) flexible and (2) able to modify
sedimented customs and institutions, which for Dewey are just embodied
habits.457 Impulses are creative in that they instigate the renewal of habit,
which is itself an ability and an art.458 Habits are adjustments of the

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environment, not merely to it. At the same time, the environment is many,
not one; hence will, disposition, is plural.459 Our habits are as diverse as the
environments to which they respond. Environments take on the dispositions
we impart to them, while habits are symptomatic of how environments have
compelled us to adapt.
Much of this sounds like Merleau-Ponty, and we might have to concede
that some aspects of the lived body bear the mark of plasticity. Especially
with regard to habit, style, and postural schema, there are traces of plasticity
in Merleau-Pontys body-subject. The growth and disintegration of the body
in its materiality is not a focus of his study, however, and unless we want to
institute a new dualism of objective and subjective corporeality, the structure
of the lived body must be seen as fundamentally material, and therefore
liable to generation and degeneration. Even in The Childs Relations
with Others the body is presented as mature and capable. Its habitual
relations are presented as regulated by a single global phenomenon (i.e.,
perception). As Merleau-Ponty writes, the internal characteristics of the
subject always intervene in his way of establishing his relations with what
is outside him. It is never simply the outside which molds him; it is he
himself who takes a position in the face of the external conditions (Child
108/17). Put otherwise, the existential field solicits and suggests responsive
behavior, it does not determine it. Absent here is the physical growth of
the child, which determines the manner in which he or she receives and
processesor fails to do soenvironmental information. And while it is
true to say that this physical development is never simply a matter of the
outside molding the inside, it must be admitted that the internal relation
between subject and object entails, at least initially, an asymmetrical relation
of dependence whereby the subject (child) is deeply susceptible to outside
influence. This dependence signifies the need for growth as well as a state
of immaturity. Neither of these terms should be interpreted negatively,
however. Dependence and immaturity, as Dewey shows, assert their own
productive forces.
Human bodies develop. After development, disintegration. Both stages
can be given positive treatments, provided they are taken on their own terms
rather than dialectically. The childs body is exemplary. Immaturity is not
simply an absent or nascent maturity: immaturity is a power, the capacity

On Aesthetic Plasticity 203

to grow. This capacity is at once dependent and plastic for Dewey. Plasticity
here indicates the specific adaptability of an immature creature for growth.
This is not equivalent to a capacity to take on change of form in accord
with external pressure, but means the power to modify actions on the
basis of the results of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions.
Without it, the acquisition of habits is impossible.460 Dewey locates the
subjects plasticity below the level of disposition and habit, thus assigning it a
transcendental aspect. But this aspect is nothing more than the volatility of
organic processes. It is not that biology is prior to culture, but that corporeal
structures are emergent, resilient, and pliable. In other words, the condition
of possibility for habit acquisition is experimentation, or the indeterminate
determinacy of a socially embedded impulse and instinct.
Growth comes with the acquisition of habits, which enable independence
and maturity. Maturation, as No writes, is not so much a process of
self-individuation and detachment as it is one of growing comfortably into
ones environmental situation.461 Independence comes with increased
control of the body, which includes integration and cultivation of the
environment, as well as orientation within it. And it is only when our habits
become mechanized routines, when we get locked into circuits of behavior
or when our bodies become territorialized, that our plasticity is paralyzed.
The tendency toward decreased plasticity, the dissolution of the power to
grow, quickens with age. It is not just a matter of inattention, it is a physical
necessity. This is why James instructs that, in education it is imperative
that we make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. As the
power to efficiently and effortlessly think and act decreases, the exigency
of adaptation and habituationthe effortless custody of automatism
increases.462
Dewey explicitly links the habituation of the subject to its qualitative
surroundingsthe aesthetics of the environment. Our growth depends
on the sensations our bodies exchange with others like and unlike our
own. Like Levinas, Dewey holds that we live from our sensations. We are
organisms whose habits serve to increase susceptibility, sensitiveness,
responsiveness. An individuals capacity to exist, or their power, is directly
determined by the exchange of old habits for new sensations:

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Thus even if we think of habits as so many grooves, the power


to acquire many and varied grooves denotes high sensitivity,
explosiveness. Thereby an old habit, a fixed groove if one
wishes to exaggerate, gets in the way of the process of forming
a new habit while the tendency to form a new one cuts
across some old habit. Hence instability, novelty, emergence
of unexpected and unpredictable combinations. The more
an organism learnsthe more, that is, the former terms of
a historic process are retained and integrated in this present
phasethe more it has to learn, in order to keep itself going;
otherwise death and catastrophe.463
Given that sensitivity here entails a capacity to take on and annihilate
form, which is to say, indicates a certain plasticity, increased exposure to
different sensory environments can lead to the sedimentation or explosion
of an individuals ethos (habituated identity, the law of the individual). It
is not so much that life itself is inherently explosive. It is the power of the
organism that is explosive. This power is dictated by the disposition of the
organism, including its set of habitual circuits, state of physical maturation,
and possibilities for experimentation. It is fascinating to note that Dewey
regards death here as the inability of an organism to continue learning. In
other words, death is the extinction of growth, or the absolute slackening of
plasticity. Life, by contrast, is the force which encourages novelty by learning
how to replace old habits with new ones.

Aesthetic Animation
In The Meaning of the Body Johnson shows how important the aesthetic
dimension is for the body to make sense of its environment. He argues that
the aesthetic is usually downplayed in our discussions of experience. This
happens because we take a certain limitation in our knowledge of qualitative
experience to indicate a limitation of experience itself. Put otherwise, we
disregard the qualitative dimension of experience because it belongs to the
difficult-to-articulate affective register, rather than the less unruly perceptual
and cognitive. The present rehabilitation of sensation is motivated by a
desire to redraw the limits of experience. Even phenomenology, Johnson

On Aesthetic Plasticity 205

notes, has a hard time with the qualitative dimension, for it is easier
to describe the structural aspects of experience than it is to describe felt
qualities. The tendency is thus always to look for the constituting structures
of experience, at the expense of the actual experience of qualities.464
Following Dewey, Johnson shows that qualitiesas liminal events occurring
between bodies, as milieusare felt and, as such, allow the sentience
of the body to discern immanently the meaning of events and objects.
Once we are struck, caught up, seized, writes Johnson, only then can
we discriminate elements within our present situation.465 Sensations are
responsible for instigating and giving meaning to the dialogue between
subject and object.
What is it that discriminates? Our bodies. Their sensorimotor and
neural makeup, both the products of material growth, determine what
stands out, for us, from a situation or scene. Therefore, how we take
objects would change if our bodies, brains, or environments changed
in some radical way.466 Rarely radical in act, our bodies are constantly
adapting to the aesthetic provocations of their surroundings. Only upon
this instigation (sens) are they moved to adapt and make sense of things. As
Johnson concludes,
we are living in and through a growing, changing situation that
opens up toward new possibilities and that is transformed as
it develops. That is the way human meaning works, and none
of this happens without our bodies, or without our embodied
interactions within environments that we inhabit and that
change along with us.467
Our bodies take on the qualitative meanings of their environments. Their
integrity depends on these meanings which first register on their sensibility.
Sensibility regulates their capacity to be formed and deformed by the
aesthetic dimension, for better or worse.
It must be noted that a similar idea is available in Caseys invaluable
work on place. Casey writes of the disorienting effect of wild places or
wilderness on the body. Built places, by contrast, serve to orient and
sustain the properly human dimensions of the body.468 Disorientation in
wild or natural places is, he writes, often radically independent of human
corporeal intentionality, to the point of challenging and undermining this

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intentionality.469 This point is precisely what we indicated as deficient


in Merleau-Pontys analyses, particularly with respect to his treatment of
violence. What we realize in the wilderness, for Casey, is that body and world
are only reversible in familiar, manageable places. Everyday places. And
yet, the radical independence that wild places present to us is only radical
as an excess of intentional content, as a surplus of meaning. That is, their
independence is only relative to the reach of everyday phenomenological
experience, which means that the source of their disorienting effect can
only be inferred from within the subject-world correlation. Are they really
wild, or do they just appear so? Wild places tell us that the intentional arc
of our bodies does not constitute the world, but the phenomenology of wild
place stops here. It fails to tell us what the excess of intentionality consists
of, what savage power is capable of disorienting the intentional arc.470 As
we have seen, this excess is aesthetic, a surplus of sensations. But this is an
excess that resides in even our most familiar places; we simply fail to notice,
precisely because they are familiar. Wilderness is all around us.
Places are liable to orient us as much as disorient us. This is just as true
of built places as wild ones, and it is precisely what makes architectural
design so important, and why specialists are needed to carry out this design
work. Otherwise, disorienting places are more likely to be constructed. My
claim at this point is that disorientation as well as orientation spring from
the sensory environment, not just the sphere of intentionality. Our bodies
receive and respond to environmental directives that cannot become the
object of intentionality. Or, if they can, it is only upon reflection. Because
they contact the bodys sensibility directly, they animate us automatically,
and this animationof which reflection is a partis always one step
ahead of our intentions. It is in this sense that they exceed the phenomena
of perception and elude our volition. These directives, what Lingis calls
imperatives, are ambivalent. They are volatile. Every place, I would argue,
harbors a volatility because every place is constituted by an aesthetic
dimension with the potential to affect us in ways that accommodate and/or
diminish us.

On Aesthetic Plasticity 207

Environmental Imperatives
Sensations are imperatives. Following Kants distinction, we could ask: do
sensuous imperatives command hypothetically or categorically?471 As we
pursue our practical aims environmental aesthetics offer numerous scenes,
settings, and pathways, each with its own sensory atmosphere. In most
cases I am able to choose from a finite set of routes to my destination. I
leave my house to buy groceries. There is a busy street with cars, buses,
and pedestrians that leads to the market; there is a quieter residential street
that also leads to the market. I must take some street, but the specific one
I choose is up to me. Or at least it seems that way. Perhaps I am lured
in a particular direction by the promise of a singular set of sensations,
so I choose it because of what it promises me? This is the hypothetical
dimension. Now, once I am committed to a single route (is it one of my
habitual circuits?) I find myself inserted in a sensory milieu that makes
unique claims on my bodys sensory apparatus. My body is commanded
categorically by the sensations comprising the milieu because it cannot but
receive and respond to these sensations, which are, in Lingiss words, not
reactions to physical causality nor adjustments to physical pressures, nor free
and spontaneous impositions of order on amorphous data, but responses to
directives.472 Our carnal sensibility obeys environmental commands as they
are given, but not necessarily as a form of subjection. Sensibility, because it
is of the same environment to which it responds, is precisely what enables
the body to get along in that environment. Sensibility is the bodys freedom,
but a freedom bestowed upon it from without.473 The sensory imperative is a
heteronomous imperative.
Elaborating on the imperative, Lingis takes up Merleau-Pontys notion of
the levels of perception. Lingis writes of
the level of light which our gaze adjusts to and sees with as it
looks at the illuminated contours that surface and intensify,
the level of the sonority our hearing attunes to as it harkens to
sounds and noises that rise out of it, the level of the tangible
our posture finds as our limbs move across the contours and
textures of tangible substances.474

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What makes the levels different from the objects of perception is that the
former are decidedly ungraspable. Their adumbrations cannot be explored
or enumerated, for they have no profiles. Our bodies cannot pursue a better
hold on them, cannot enter into a dialectical relation which slowly converges
on their essence. To engage a level, the body adjusts to it, is sustained by
it, moves with it and according to it.475 In a word, the body is animated
by the aesthetic of the levels. A place, or the world taken as the totality
of places, is composed of a nexus of levels. Its style is determined by this
nexus which cannot be survey[ed] from above. The style of a place is
something our bodies catch on to by moving with it. It is not given to us
in perception, but engaged as an imperative whose force comes from the
sensorial patterns which order intentionality.476 If perception wants to
perceive things, it must adjust itself to the levels in which things are situated.
To pursue the profiles of objects, the body must subject itself to the shifting
qualitative dimension of the levels. The levels are elemental and, therefore, a
kind of depth in which the world is immersed. It is because we are immersed
in this depth, not set over against it, that it cannot be grasped by perception,
only yielded to or traversed.
From an aesthetic perspective we can conceive the identity of a place as
composed of an indeterminate series of sensations, the nexus of levels that
gives this series its specific dimensions, and the circuits of behavior they
engender. The bodys identity is susceptible to the imperative force of each
of these environmental aspects. And insofar as these aspects are perpetually
shifting and prone to a range of sensory variations, we could say that a
places sensory identity is never fixed in its form, but maintains the integrity
of a haecceitya metastable and coherent, yet precarious, aggregate of
sensory qualities. Of course we can say that this aggregate points us toward a
unified object, but does that not unnecessarily reduce the complexity of the
sensory content to a simple substance or telos? Or rather, can we not think
of the object as radiating its complex of qualities outward, and therefore as a
multiplicity exploding its apparent unity? To imagine this would be to think
from the perspective of the object, or to take an object-oriented approach to
embodiment.
Given that the bodies that populate a place are partly responsible for
that places sensory content, whose directives command bodies to respond

On Aesthetic Plasticity 209

in particular ways, the identity of the bodies situated within a place will also
have the character of a haecceity. The integrity and intensity of the place gets
reflected in the body. Consequently, the range of sensations and affects the
body is capable of gets determined by the range of sensations and affects it
receives from its environment. At any given time the singular constitution or
dispositionality of a body is made possible by its plasticity.

Metabolism
The critical takeaway here can be illustrated with an appeal to the biological
concept of metabolism. In our consideration of the aesthetics of place, the
identity of bodies, and the alimentary aspect of sensation, we have worked
toward a philosophical encounter with metabolism. Biologically speaking,
metabolism is a fact. Ontologically, it describes the genesis of form and
exemplifies the plastic nature of bodies, both organic and inorganic. Organic
bodies are aggregates of matter and void, void mostly, crisscrossed by
the geometry of force, as Jonas puts it.477 Through the metabolic process
the organic body trades its matter with the matter of its surroundings.
This exchange gives rise to a living form whose matter is never the
same from one moment to the next. No identical core persists through
the metabolic process, which means that an organism is not the same as a
machine understood in the usual sense. As Jonas says, Metabolism thus
is the constant becoming of the machine itselfand this becoming itself
is a performance of the machine: but for such performance there is no
analogue in the world of machines.478 Writing of the body-world interface,
Andrieu strikes a similar note about the non-mechanical individuation of the
metabolic process:
As an interface, the body doesnt remain passive: it doesnt
obey the orders of the nervous system in a servile manner,
neither is it an objective reflection of the world. Failing to
be this recording chamber, according to the mechanical
metaphor, the human body is the way in and out, through
which the inside communicates with the outside (and viceversa). This crossing is subjectifying in the sense that the
matter of the body is the result of this building up interaction.

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By subjectifying I mean the movement which singularizes


each human body by successive incorporations. Subjectivity
is a result, in continuous movement, of adaptation and
regulation.479
From the perspective of biological metabolism the organism is a material
event, a function of metabolism, not the converse.480 From the ontological
perspective metabolism offers us a conception of identity as active selfintegration and renewal, as the integration of a fluctuating multiplicity.
On the one hand, the material exchange that bodies conduct with the
world replenishes their form. On the other hand, our perceptual dialogue
enables us to maintain our balance in the phenomenal world; it helps
keep the world intact, manageable. The individual on this materialist
viewwhich Andrieu describes as dynamic and Bennett calls vital
develops a certain degree of freedom in its form, but it remains bound to
the environment by and for its matter. In Jonass words, the individual is
needfully free.481 Our freedom is our ability to negotiate the determinate
indeterminacy offered by the world.
The biological concept of metabolism applies only to organic, living
beings. It need not be so limited in application, however. The concept can
be profitably co-opted by the carnal ontology under development here, and
extended so as to describe inorganic relations. As Bennett writes,
The activity of metabolization, whereby the outside and inside
mingle and recombine, renders more plausible the idea of
a vital materiality. It reveals the swarm of activity subsisting
below and within formed bodies and recalcitrant things, a
vitality obscured by our conceptual habit of dividing the world
into inorganic and organic life.482
To illustrate the aberrant materialism exemplified by this metabolic process,
we turn to Yukio Mishimas autobiographical meditation on identity, Sun
and Steel, a text which allegorizes the plasticity of the body. Sun and Steel
recounts Mishimas turn away from words and toward the body, namely, his
initiation into the world of bodybuilding.
Mishima recognizes the human tendency toward automatism of mind
and body. But he also sees that habits are not destinies: they can be molded
and redirected, not just intentionally but also materially. We are not actually

On Aesthetic Plasticity 211

automata. As Bergson has shown, following Flix Ravaisson, habits link us


into the mechanisms of nature and often act as efficient responses to the
directives contained therein.483 The sun provides a directive for Mishima.484
Its rays are absorbed into his body and incorporated into the surface of his
skin. In a similar fashion the steel of the weights he lifts gets incorporated
into his musculature. These are not metaphors. Mishima writes: Little by
little the properties of my muscles came increasingly to resemble those
of the steel. This slow development, I found, was remarkably similar to the
process of education, which remodels the brain intellectually by feeding it
with progressively more difficult matter.485 Mishima does not literally ingest
steel, although his body certainly does take in the vitamins provided by the
sunlight. Nevertheless, Mishimas body lives from, metabolizes the steel
no less than the sun. His body engages organic and inorganic matter and,
enacting an unnatural participation, converts both into muscle. According to
Lingiss description,
In the coupling of organism with steel, the vital substance
with the extreme condensation of night and death, there was
not competent intentional force shaping inert substance into
implements, but transference of properties. The properties that
came to compose the excess musculature came from the steel
and were its own properties. In the contact with the substance
of steel, Mishima found a body become ferric substance.486
This muscle not only gives him strength, it provides his form as well. The
form emerges from the circuitous relation which obtains between body and
milieu, both of which must be regarded as organic/inorganic composites.487
The idea that Mishima metabolizes sun and steel is more than metaphor.
His body is sculpted and polished by repetitive exposure to metal and
solar energy. Sun and steel territorialize his body and augment his vitality.
He exchanges for this his sweat, vitamins, calories, pallor. In his words, he
transforms the silence of death into the eloquence of life.488 His writers
body, with its distinctive habits and traits, is molded into the body of a
weightlifter and begins to signify differently, in the code of the bodybuilder.
This signification is transmitted through a new set of sensations. The
bodybuilders circuit of training lends Mishimas body its stability, its
integrityits power. The circuit enables him to cut into certain material

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flows and generate a new form. Mishima is a machine, but not in the
mechanical sense. The organic/inorganic metabolism of Mishimas body
demonstrates the machinic process, described by Deleuze and Guattari, and
allows us to see that insofar as each one of us metabolizes materials from the
natural and social environmentincluding affects and sensations, signs and
gestures, rituals and mannerismsour corporeal identity is literally formed
by what we inhabit. Metabolism exemplifies plasticity just as well as any
other process.489

Bodies/Buildings
Some architectural theorists think about body/building relations in a similar
way. They consider the sensory design of a building as fundamental to the
experience of place precisely because the bodys sensibility is susceptible to
the qualities endemic to a particular building. There is both an aesthetics
and an ethics of design at work in sentiments of this kind. In Atmospheres the
architect Peter Zumthor writes about how the atmosphere of a building
is its rhythm, which we pick up through our emotional sensibility.490 He
elaborates a series of points about how to generate atmosphere, which
include sensory and material considerations:
Its like our own bodies with their anatomy and things we cant
see and skin covering usthats what architecture means to
me and thats how I try to think about it. As a bodily mass, a
membrane, a fabric, a kind of covering, cloth, velvet, silk, all
around me. The body! Not the idea of the bodythe body
itself! A body that can touch me.491
In his meditation on atmosphere, he exhibits a distinct sense
of how the body is immediately affected by the building it
inhabits, and how the body demands certain architectural
qualities for its well-being. He considers temperature: It is
well-known that materials more or less extract the warmth
from our bodies.492 Atmosphere, I would argue, is just
another name for the singular sensory structure of a space.
Juhani Pallasmaa writes in An Architecture of the Seven Senses about
how our bodies adopt the structure of buildings in their skeletal structure

On Aesthetic Plasticity 213

and bodily sensations.493 He argues that Every touching experience of


architecture is multi-sensory; qualities of matter, space, and scale are
measured equally by the eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, skeleton and muscle.
Architecture involves seven realms of sensory experience which interact
and infuse each other.494 The identity of a space is distinct and can be
apprehended by the senses. Hollow spaces resonate with emptiness, whereas
furnished spaces will have an aural identity specific to the arrangement,
quantity, and quality of the furnishings.495 He summarizes how the identity
of architect and building merge in the design process, and how this identity
is passed on to the buildings patrons:
an architect internalizes a building in his body; movement,
balance, distance and scale are felt unconsciously through the
body as tension in the muscular system and in the positions
of the skeleton and inner organs. As the work interacts
with the body of the observer the experience mirrors these
bodily sensations of the maker. Consequently, architecture is
communication from the body of the architect directly to the
body of the inhabitant.496
Pallasmaas phenomenological convictions win the day, however, and he
concludes that while sensations engage the physical body, the generative
force lies in the intentions.497 I would contend that while intentions do
indeed propel our engagement with places, it is the directives embedded in
placesbuilt and naturalthat initially strike the body. It is strange that
Pallasmaa does not concede this point, for his analysis emphasizes the role
of the skin in the experience of architecture. The skin, it seems to me, only
takes on an intentional aspect when it directly contacts some object, not
when it senses an atmosphere. And even then it is questionable whether
or not it is intentional in the sense that vision or imagination is. I would
claim, following Levinas, that the skin is precisely that sense organ which
testifies to the primacy of sensation over perception because it is constantly
processing environmental information that never rises to the level of
conscious representation.
Our bodies are of the environment, but not identical to it. MerleauPonty says the same thing about the flesh, but his exposition leaves us
wanting a fuller account of how bodies are individuated from and eventually

214 Chapter 5

annihilated by the fleshs general element. The concepts of metabolism


and growth offer us a picture of the individual as at once attached to and
independent of its environment. This is not a relation of reversibility, but
one of volatile transaction. The transaction can go off well or it can go
badly. The individual is not fully determined by its situation, although it is
fundamentally enabled by it. Who is this individual? It is the body which
refers to itself as I and understands itself as a singular locus of sensations,
passions, and actions, and which feels itself limited by and attached to a
particular set of material, cultural, and linguistic circumstances.
Following up this view of individuation, we can conceive the body as
a singular locus of sensations (haecceities), or as a specific conspiracy of
environmental impressions which define an exact position, a longitude and a
latitude.498 A body can be anything, but it will always be defined or mapped
according to the ratio governing it as a composite of simple bodies and the
affective, anonymous forces traversing the composite at a given moment.499
On this reading sensations are neither mere epiphenomena produced in
the mind nor content merely inferred from perception. They are productive
of clearly demarcated bodily responses, what we might call, with Dewey,
experiences: An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that
storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted
by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of variation
of its constituent parts.500 This quality need not be simple. Indeed, most
experiences are differentiated by a multiplicity of qualities that we identify
as a singularity. That bodies undergo or suffer experiences implies that
experiences are objectively given and generate their own form. That we
metabolize the qualities which pervade experiencesthat experiences
shape who we are and what we can domeans that we become who we
are along with our experiences. Subjectivity is produced as this qualitative
becoming.501
Qualities are neither atomistic nor indeterminate. They do not derive
their form from a thing or lose their autonomy just because they are
attached to a thing, but rather they give rise to the form and qualitative
identity of the thing as an assemblage of potential sensations. This idea
is found in Mach as well as James: Thing, body, matter, are nothing
apart from the combinations of elementsthe colors, sounds, and so

On Aesthetic Plasticity 215

forthnothing apart from their so-called attributes.502 The same can


be said of space, as well as the bodies that populate that space. As James
writes, Space means but the aggregate of all our possible sensations.503
Consequently, the body becomes the site of these sensations, each and
every one of which leaves a trace that makes it impossible for the body to
undergo the same impression twice.504 Its disposition is constantly changing
with its environment. In this way bodies are at every moment individual
aesthetic events whose power to produce sensible effects is constituted by
the aesthetic experiences they suffer. Power, then, is a plastic disposition
autonomous in effect but relational in constitution. Death, on this view,
is simply the exhaustion of the individuals power, or the transgression of
the threshold that defines the individuals power at a particular moment.
When your body ceases to produce the sensations that define you, you have
become something else. You begin to produce new sensations, engender
a new power, however enfeebled or strengthened. Your matter continues,
reincarnated, in an infinite succession of new metabolic events. This is your
immortality.

The Principle of Aesthetic Individuation


There is no reductionism involved here. What I have attempted is to
render life and individuality in aesthetic terms, and to do so according
to a corporeal ontology that avoids, if I have succeeded at all, both
transcendent principles and anthropocentrism. This is not in the interest of
homogenizing the diversity of life, but in affirming the singular complexity
of each individual and flattening the field of being. One of the primary
benefits of shifting the discourse of embodiment to the aesthetic level is
that it allows us to displace the problems of environmental philosophyin
particular the animality/humanity, artificial/natural, and nature/culture
debatesonto a different plane. This opens new non-anthropocentric
avenues for interrogation and new possibilities for solving old problems.
It might be objected that such a shift of emphasis leads to a reduction
of the complexities of our experience and is an attempt to translate the
myriad qualitative aspects of life into quanta of stimuli. On the contrary, it
affirms the complexity found in every corner of material life and challenges
the hierarchical ontologies that anxiously defend the sanctity of only

216 Chapter 5

one form of lifethe human. It also affirms that sensing is not at all a
mechanical process.
Toward these ends I have adduced a theory of corporeal plasticity which
is both phenomenological and materialist, and derived from this theory
an immanent form of the imperative as well as a principle for valuing the
diversity of aesthetic experiences. We can call this the principle of aesthetic
individuation, which runs as follows: since a bodys sensory identity is
determined by the sensory blueprint of its environment, that bodys
power to affect and be affected will only be as complex as the totality of
its aesthetic experiences. Since this principle has relied on an unorthodox
conception of sensation (which I have developed piecemeal in each of my
chapters), I would like to reprise sensations several aspects.505

Aspects of Sensation
First, sensations are objective. An object, for instance, is recognizable as an
aggregate of qualities apprehensible by our senses. We imagine that even
when we are not there to apprehend it the object retains a real power (or
disposition) to produce roughly the same aggregate of sensations. In some
casespain, for instancewe feel ourselves attacked from outside by
sensations. They lead an autonomous life; this autonomy is evinced in the
resistant aspect of a plastic body, its capacity to hold a form, even if only
for a moment. Autonomy derives from the form assumed by sensations
conspiring to produce bodies and bodies conspiring to produce complex
corporeal systems like dust clouds, forests, traffic patterns, schools, and
flockshowever fleeting or precarious these conspiracies may befor it is
their form that allows them to stand out from, stand up to, connect with,
and attract other objects. The objective (autonomous) aspect is needed
to explain where disruptive and violent sensations come from, or how, as
Levinas puts it, sensation breaks up a system.
Second, sensations are relational. They only affect, or make sense, when
they come into contact with bodies. Their effects are a matter of contrast,
as James notes.506 Put otherwise, we could say that the meaning of a
sensation is diacritical; its effectiveness depends on the field of sensations it
is embedded in. As diacritical, a sensations effect will be neither intrinsically
nor extrinsically determined. Its effect will be determined between subject

On Aesthetic Plasticity 217

and object, or object and object. This leads us to a more democratic


view of bodies, one that maintains that sensations are traded between
any and all bodies (inanimate as well as animate). The odd idea that two
inanimate bodies can exchange sensations is not unprecedented. As HellerRoazen explains:
Even in Greek psychological writings, the meaning of the term
[aisthesis] was fluid, and it could stray very far from the field
of human perception. At times, it was even employed to mark
the affections of the inanimate, in punctual opposition to the
animate: a fifth-century treatise in the Hippocratic corpus, for
example, has the verb aisthanesthai characterize the effects of
the wind on lifeless things.507 This is a conception of sensation
that is not available in Aristotle, for whom even plantslet
alone inanimate objectscannot sense because they lack the
sensitive part of the soul. That is, they lack aisthesis. I wish
to retain the Hippocratic idea that all things are moved by
sensation, and this because sensation does not happen in
the sensing being, but rather on them, and is not restricted
exclusively to beings with souls.508
Third, since sensations harbor the potential to enable or disable
bodies, they are said to be ambivalent. This aspect has particular import
for the ethics of embodiment. The volatility of sensations must be taken
into consideration when designing buildings and public spaces, or when
considering the preservation or destruction of a natural environment, for
example.509 An ethics based on the plasticity of the body as I have described
it will necessarily be a kind of environmental ethics. It will pay specific
attention to the aesthetic scaffolding of the environment and the way in
which aesthetics fosters and diminishes our bodys power to exist. Generally,
it will be concerned with the sensory aspect of places, although a theory of
art could also be envisaged. Above all, given how the bodys composition
relies on the composition of its environment, the concept of integrity will be
central. The principle of aesthetic individuation dictates this.
Fourth: sensations are alimentary. We live from our sensations, but we
also die by them. Since they are also ambivalent, they need to be regarded as
both nourishment and poison. Their intensity and affectivity will determine

218 Chapter 5

whether they enable or disable our bodies. Our corporeal plasticity remains
needfully vulnerable to them.
Fifth, sensations belong to nothing and no one: their liminality,
objectivity, and ambivalence entail a certain detachment or anonymity. When
we say that we have sensations, what we describe is a particular bodily
response to a sensation. The response operates below the perceptual level
which would determine it as mine, as personal. Once we have noticed it,
the sensation has already seized us. When we project sensations from our
bodies, they can be attributed to us only to a degree. Try as we might, we
cannot regulate completely our own aesthetic signification. And insofar as
our bodies are a composite of sensations, and we are nothing more than our
bodies, there is no substantial person to which the sensations attach as
properties. Sensations affect a body; they produce this body. Never is this
body or its aesthetic properly ones own.
Finally, sensation belongs to the past. Although they are actualized in the
present, their presentation is always delayed. And this delay is absolute.
The bodys receptivity always lags behind the efficacy of sensation. The
body, once it takes notice of its sensory input, has already had its plasticity
activated. If sensation can be said to exist or reside anywhere, it is in the past
which has never been present, the virtual past.
I have here presented an image of the body as plastic and adduced
evidence for preferring it over the theories of embodiment offered by
Merleau-Ponty (reversibility) and Levinas (susceptibility). This image
could not have taken shape without certain insights ascertained by the
phenomenologists, however. I take my efforts to have balanced their
perspective with supplemental evidence from non-phenomenological
theorists, and to have outlined a new theory of sensation that may serve
as a program for future work on sensation. My purpose in the final
chapter is to draw some of the practical consequences of the theory of
corporeal plasticity.

Conclusion
Plasticity and Power
The palace is the body of the king. Your body sends you
mysterious messages, which you receive with fear, with
anxiety. In an unknown part of this body, a menace is
lurking, your death is already stationed there; the signals that
reach you warn you perhaps of a danger buried in your own
interior. The body seated askew on the throne is no longer
yours, you have been deprived of its use ever since the crown
encircled your head; now your person is spread out through
this dark, alien residence that speaks to you in riddles. But
has anything really changed? Even before, you knew little or
nothing about what you were. And you were afraid of it, as
you are now.
Calvino, A King Listens

Assemblage, fold, eddy, haecceity; sensory, behavioral, and habitual


circuits Throughout this book an entire vocabulary has accumulated to
describe and defend the immanence of the body so that, in spite of Paul
Klees epitaph, the body is indeed caught in immanence (EM 188/87).
But what about transcendence? What about freedom? To be sure, the
phenomenologists never leave these questions out of their equation. So it

220Conclusion

would not be unfair to object that the foregoing account of embodiment


is slanted to the extent that it suppresses the dimension of transcendence
operative in Merleau-Ponty and, crucially, in Levinas. It has, as a result, said
relatively little about the freedom afforded by transcendence.

Post-Dualist Freedom
If I have passed over freedom in silence, it is because I think freedom is
something only the committed dualist has to worry about. Post-dualists
have turned to the body precisely to discard such concerns. Or, put
differently, what the post-dualist means by freedom may be difficult for
the dualist to recognize as freedom. But just because we have evacuated
the interiority of the subject (classical locus of free will) and given up on
liberal individualism, however, does not mean that we must resign ourselves
to some vulgar determinism. That much should be apparent at this point.
The challenge to be met by philosophies of immanence is to account for the
freedom of the body in terms of corporeal surfaces, in terms of rotations,
convolutions, inflections, and torsions of the body itself, as Grosz puts it.510
In other words, to transcribe the freedom of the lived body into the power
of the body as a dynamic materiality. Toward this end it is worth unpacking
(with the aid of Spinoza) the following lesson from Merleau-Ponty: the
power of the body is an expression of the system of appearances it encounters. Put
otherwise, the body isnot unlike the electrified Rugendas of Airas novella
of the landscape painterthe radiant center of a sensory economy.511
Along the way I have sometimes drawn a distinction between the
ontological and practical power of the body, implying that there is a real
difference between what the body is and what it can do. Against Levinas I
suggested that ontology is, indeed, prior to ethics. Here I want to plainly
assert that this only a nominal distinction. The power of the body to exist
and the power of the body to act are in fact metaphysically equivalent. This
principle I adopt from Spinoza, who writes in the Ethics that the power or
conatus by which [a thing] endeavors to persist in its own being, is nothing
but the given, or actual, essence of the thing. Furthermore: since the
ability to exist is power, it follows that the greater the degree of reality that
belongs to the nature of a thing, the greater amount of force [vis] it has
from itself for existence.512 A things essence is its internal necessity, the law

Plasticity and Power 221

ordering its nature, which is always composed of a number of bodies acting


together as an individual. In the language I have developed here, the power
of the body is equal to the disposition of its plasticity. To see how this might
be borne out in Merleau-Ponty we must distinguish between his theory of
freedom and his theory of power.
The phenomenological portrayal of freedom makes up the entire closing
chapter of Phenomenology of Perception. True to form, Merleau-Pontys
interrogation of the nature of freedom splits the difference between absolute
determinism and absolute freedom. To discard the former he affirms that
it is evident through reflection that I am not a thing; I do not find myself
objectified by a situation, I take a position in it, so I must therefore be more
than a thing. I am a consciousness too. Sympathetic to Sartres Kantian
defense of the absolute freedom of the ego, Merleau-Ponty identifies
consciousness as our power of escape from the causal relations which
obtain between mere things (PP 434, 435/496, 497). From one angle we
find that the limitations placed on action are self-imposed by the projects
we choose to undertake. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, there are no obstacles
in themselves (PP 441/503). A fallen tree blocking the street is only an
obstacle if I desire to travel down that street. What I can and cannot do is
dictated by the synchrony achieved between my practical intentions and
the existential field opened up by those intentions. Unlike things, I possess
the power of transcendence. That is, I am free to move beyond the given.
Things, for lack of consciousness, are condemned to immanence.
The practical intentions I seek to fulfill can only come to fruition within
a field of behavior inflected by social, historical, physical, cultural forces.
My conscious body is invested with these forces, and must make sense of
them, in order to act. Freedom depends upon this field for its meaning
and, therefore, its possibilities. The field is instrumentally necessary to
the movement of transcendence enacted by freedom, but it is also what
gets transcended by consciousness. Conscious action generates its own
obstacle course, although it does not completely control it. The autonomy
of the course is revealed by the fact that my body suffers intentions it does
not choose (PP 440/502). Descartes, Berkeley, and others used a similar
argument to prove that sense experience is produced by something other

222Conclusion

than the sensing subject, that the world is not merely my illusion, but ruled
by something other.
The autochthonous significance of the existential environment
presents a system of appearances that the body must adapt itself to in order
to thrive. To be free is to be able to confront competently the obstacles
engendered by ones projects and to understand how intentional action
squares with the resistances of the given. Our freedom does not destroy our
situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open,
which implies both that it calls up specially favoured modes of resolution,
and also that it is powerless [impuissante] to bring one into being by itself
(PP 442/505). The immanence of the subject does not restrict freedom;
rather, it obliges the subject to garner adequate sets of habits and styles of
living that will allow it to escape from immanence and recreate its horizon
of action (PP 443-444/505-507). An able body acquires its freedom through
a dialogue with the existential field. A balance of creation and conformity
determines the nature of this freedom:
What then is freedom? To be born is both to be born of the
world and to be born into the world. The world is already
constituted, but also never completely constituted; in the
first case we are acted upon, in the second we are open to
an infinite number of possibilities. But this analysis is still
abstract, for we exist in both ways at once. There is, therefore,
never determinism and never absolute choice, I am never a
thing and never bare consciousness. (PP 453/517)
The subjects identity is decidedly not given; it is achieved. Partly a matter of
facticity, partly a matter of coping, its genuinely indeterminate possibilities
are open, yet limited.
One of the key problems with the exoteric account of freedom found in
the Phenomenology is its faith in body-world synchronization (reversibility),
which was criticized in chapters two and three. This kind of faith contains
remnants of a liberal individualism, as Dewey points out.513 However,
when we consider that Merleau-Ponty regards freedom also as a matter
of tolerating the environmental conditions that determine what it can and
cannot accomplish, the residual individualism begins to fade away. Taken
concretely, freedom is always a meeting of inner and outer and it shrinks

Plasticity and Power 223

without ever disappearing altogether in direct proportion to the lessening


of the tolerance allowed by the bodily and institutional data of our lives (PP
454/518). By shifting our attention away from how the subject overcomes
his or her situation, and concentrating on how this situation imposes
itself, resists or does violence to the subject, we come to see the power of
embodiment in terms of determination instead of freedom. The advantage
of this shift in perspective is that it allows us to abandon the language of
inner and outer, consciousness and transcendence, without succumbing to
absolute determinism. That is, it allows us to think the immanence of body
and environment without completely giving up the notion of freedom, which
is arguably what Merleau-Ponty aspired to when he gave up the dualism of
his early text for the monistic ontology of the flesh.
How can we understand freedom as tolerance? One strategy would be
to recast the weakness or vulnerability of the body as its power.514 Another
would be to extol the virtues of resignation and acceptance. These two
options are ontologically and morally unattractive, precisely because we
really want to figure out what our bodies can become, not just what they are.
What then is the virtue of tolerance? In a word, necessity. Since an embodied
subject never exists outside of an entanglement of bodies, understanding
and affirming how these bodies enable and/or disable it is tantamount to
realizing its freedom. The composition of a collective body, as we have seen,
informs the disposition of each individual body involved in it. And it is the
disposition of a body, or the specific state of its plasticity, that defines the
range of what it can tolerate and accomplish in that state. Tolerance is thus
governed by a threshold of power which expresses the dispositional plasticity
of the body. For Merleau-Ponty this threshold is delimited by the bodys
habituation to environmental aesthetics.
To draw the practical consequences of this point let us now consider
tolerance from the perspective of aesthetics, or what I have called the
principle of aesthetic individuation. I will argue that the bodys capacity
to suffer and respond to appearances is closely tied to the diversity and
intensity of appearances comprising its aesthetic environment, along with
the habits it has accumulated in response to these appearances.
The Spinozist aspect of Merleau-Pontys notion of freedom is scattered
throughout the Phenomenologys analyses of space, sensing, and things.

224Conclusion

It is not quite esoteric, but it is less visible than his phenomenological


account. It accompanies his remarks on appearances [apparences] and is
contained in his discussion of how to view objectively an object or painting.
Phenomenologically speaking, it is the case that the true identity of a
painting appears to the viewer when he or she achieves the privileged
perception necessitated by the paintingthe point at which the painting
reveals a maximum of clarity and richness. Articulated in spatial terms,
For each object, as for each picture in an art gallery, there is an optimum
distance from which it requires to be seen (PP 302/348). There is an
imperative here: the viewer must situate herself in a specific location,
dictated by the painting or object in question, if she is going to acquire the
power [puissance] of achieving a certain spectacle. Power in this scenario is
determined by, writes Merleau-Ponty, a certain kinaesthetic situation to
be negotiated by the body, which is permanently and constantly enveloped
by a set of appearances that direct it to get a hold on the world (PP
303/349). Now, since the body is an object and a perceptual phenomenon
as well, what is said here about how objects and paintings are to be rightly
viewed and identified pertains as much to the body, insofar as the body
is itself a work of art, or a collection of sensations commanding its own
perceptibility (PP 150, 451/176, 514; CD 16/27).
Attempting to open up new avenues for ethical thinking, Foucault
eventually asked about how we might fashion our own lives as works of art.
But couldnt everyones life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or
the house be an art object but not our life?, he asks.515 As always, Foucaults
question aims at discerning the limits of disciplinary regimes and the
experiential prospects of disciplined bodies. Imagining Foucaults problem
from the environmental angle, Merleau-Ponty prompts us to envisage
the emancipatory potential of aesthetics, where the practical purpose of
aesthetics would be to promote experiences that sculpt our sensibility and
intensify the bodys capacity to act. The Phenomenology consistently equates
this capacity with our ability to negotiate the appearances that populate
the environment. At many places in the text Merleau-Ponty denotes this
capacity as our power (pouvoir, puissance), leaving us to distinguish the power
of aesthetics as well as the aesthetics of power entailed in his metaphor of
the body as work of art.

Plasticity and Power 225

The question of corporeal power is necessarily a question of


performance. The body acquires tools and prostheses, learns adaptive
skills and behaviors, arranges and rearranges its repertoire of actions in
order to act efficiently in and expand its world. Since I am my body, I am
this performance, and my identity is glimpsed in the spectacle I stage.
Just as my gait can be deciphered by a friend too far away to make out my
face but close enough to see me walking, my bodily kinaesthetics betray
who I am. In large measure this results from the cultivation of habit and,
consequently, the arrangement and rearrangement of the body schema.
Each rearrangement better equips the body with the power [pouvoir] to
respond to the general field of action. This is not a power of understanding
achieved through intellectual synthesis: it is a correlation of the habituated
form of the body with the corporeal significance of the field of action (PP
142-144/166-169).
Tools and implements enrich our power to act by expanding the range
of our technique and increasing our range of action. Habit is the general
tool that allows us to enter into relations with the people, animals, cooking
utensils, and vehicles that comprise the assemblages to which we belong.
Habit expresses our power [pouvoir] of dilating our being in the world, or
changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments (PP 143/168).
Merleau-Ponty is articulating what Bennett, after Spinoza, calls
distributive agency. Distributive agency is the expression of a
heterogeneous confederation of animate and inanimate bodies, supported
by a network of scaffolding or infrastructure. A distributed agency gathers
its power from sources local and distant, and concentrates this power into
a singular effect.516 Power here, once again, names the bodys capacity to
produce effects, to do what it is capable of doing. For Spinoza this capacity
is equivalent to the singularity of bodily composition determined by the
ratio of motion and rest, quickness and slowness a body maintains with
other bodies, whether near or far.517 The freedom of the body, then, is an
expression of how it is (ontologically) determined within an assemblage or
distributed agency.
The bodys senses hold a power of their own. This power results from
the sensations the senses take in and determines how they will tolerate
future sensations. Colors, qualities, figures, and so forth present themselves

226Conclusion

to the power (puissance) of the senses, soliciting from the body a type
of behaviour that is conditioned by habit and sediments into a habitus.
These qualities come in from everywhere, all the time. The aesthetic is
never turned off. It is worth recalling here an earlier citation: The subject
of sensation is neither a thinker who takes note of a quality, nor an inert
setting which is affected or changed by it, it is a power [puissance] which
is born into, and simultaneously with, a certain existential environment,
or is synchronized with it (PP 211/245). The subject is produced by a
singular set of perspectives taken in from the aesthetic environment. It is
likewise produced as a singular set of perspectives that it gives back to the
environment. This metabolic process is reflected in the practical competence
the body uses to orient itself in its habitat.
A competent body is one that knows how appearances will determine or
affect its disposition as this body at this location (PP 302/348). A powerful
body is one that can and will, additionally, fashion its habitat to intensify its
habitus. Power synthesizes stability and productivity into creative tolerance.
It is in this sense that the body is a work of art, that is, a unified composition
that radiates a singular set of sensations and necessitates a particular
perspective for its identity is to be apprehended. In Merleau-Pontys words,
the body is a mosaic of given sensations (PP 249/288). In the same way,
Deleuze and Guattari, insisting on the autonomy of the work of art, cast
the work of art (the thing and the body) as a bloc of sensations, that is to
say, a compound of percepts and affects.518 Under this definition the integrity
of the body admits of a set of aesthetic and affective limits that cannot be
transgressed if it is to remain the particular body it is; beyond these limits
it becomes an altogether different body. Its aesthetic variability and the
appearances it stages admit of no underlying agency, just a vital materiality
that I am calling the plastic body.

An Explosive Form?
From her inquiry into brain plasticity Malabou sketches a number of
political implications, some of which I have alluded to already. Among
them, three call for commentary. First, the identity of an individual is to
be situated somewhere between the twin processes of taking on form and
annihilating form.519 This is basically the definition of plasticity we have

Plasticity and Power 227

been working with all along. Second, individuals are to some degree capable
of self-fashioning their identity. This is possible, on the one hand, because
plasticity no longer subscribes to a substantial conception of the self and, on
the other, because
the plasticity of the self, which supposes that it simultaneously
receives and gives itself its own form, implies a necessary split
and the search for an equilibrium between the preservation
of constancy (or, basically, the autobiographical self) and
the exposure of this constancy to accidents, to the outside,
to otherness in general (identity, in order to endure, ought
paradoxically to alter itself or accidentalize itself).520
The autoconstitutive function of the subject is caught between its creative
and adaptive impulses. It feeds off of the contradiction embodied in its
simultaneous resistance to conformity and its desire to maintain itself by
reproducing the norms of culture and remaining flexible to the demands
of labor, citizenship, and so forth.521 Malabous paradoxical idea of exposure,
which we also met very briefly in Foucaults notion of limit experiences, is
critical to drawing the political consequences of plasticity.
Plasticity, however, is not flexibility. Flexibility is plasticity evacuated of
its vitality and reduced to pure adaptation. The third point Malabou makes
is that the vitality of plasticity entails the detonation of form, explosiveness.
Plasticity is naturally explosive, and it is this explosiveness that transforms
nature into freedom. She writes:
On the one hand, the coincidence between formation and
disappearance of form is diachronic: a past form cedes place
to a new form, and one thus changes identity of self in the
course of time. On the other hand, form is synchronic: the
threat of the explosion of form structurally inhabits every
form. All current identity maintains itself only at the cost of
a struggle against its autodestruction: it is in this sense that
identity is dialectical in nature.522
The dialectic of formation and explosion is meant, it seems to me, to
salvage a conception of agency that respects the gap existing between the
homeostatic impulse (self-preservation) and the creative impulse (self-

228Conclusion

production).523 I hesitate to endorse the idea of explosiveness because it


seems to me that, while plastic explosives are, of course, designed to blow
things up, this does not mean that explosiveness is implicated in the concept
of plasticity itself. At least, I would not wish to implicate it. I would instead
prefer to avoid the problem of how a plastic body would reach the point of
destroying its own formwhat Malabou calls autodestructionby ascribing
the destructive force to the other. Her analyses of brain damage and the loss
of identity that accompanies it seems to point us in this direction, but she
also seems to be committed to the idea that plasticity is inherently capable of
autodestruction.
Habits and body schemata, in the absence of violence, work to stabilize
the integrity of the body. Radical transformation does not belong to
plasticity as such, which is why it seems that Malabous autodestruction
requires further (psychoanalytic) elaboration.524 This is not to say that
plasticity tends naturally toward fixity or suspension, rather than creativity,
but rather to assert that the material conditions of identity require that a
number of disparate forces, foreign and domestic, must conspire for change
to occur. Plasticity should therefore not be regarded as an impulse of any
kind, creative or destructive, but instead as the generalized disposition of
material bodies such as ours. A remark in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing
better captures the temperance of plasticity. Plasticity, writes Malabou,
characterizes a regime of systematic self-organization that is based on the
ability of an organism to integrate the modifications that it experiences
and to modify them in return.525 These modifications are germane to
intercorporeity. Now, it is true that Nietzsche said, I am no man, I am
dynamite.526 But saying that the nature of life is to discharge its power, as
Nietzsche does here, is not the same as saying that life seeks to annihilate
itselfunless what Malabou means by autodestruction is analogous to what
Freud meant by the death drive, in which case the power of self-destruction
lies not in the plasticity of the brain but in something else inside us.
Malabous incorporation of explosiveness into her theory of plasticity
responds to a worry, rightly voiced by Weiss, that the deterministic
dimension of plasticity does not leave enough room for novelty and radical
change, particularly the kind involved when unforeseen events compel us to
revise our habitual circuits.527 There are actually two concerns involved here.

Plasticity and Power 229

The first is general: Weiss is unable to see how a deterministic ontology can
account for the perceived novelty of experience. This supposes, of course,
that genuine novelty exists. The second, more specific, concern judges that
the Jamesian version of plasticity makes it difficult to see how significant
individual and social change can ever really occur once the character of
the individual or of a particular social class has been firmly established.528
For my part, I admit to skepticism about the kind of spontaneous, radical
change invoked by Weiss. Or rather, if there is radical change, it is not
spontaneous; it is always, at least in part, a yielding to what Michel Serres
calls the inconstancies and deviations produced by the agency of the
storm that is the other.529 In fact, if our condition as embodied beings is
characterized by a fundamental plasticity, then spontaneous action would
always be tempered by the material resistance of social and natural habits.530
Which is not to say that there is no phenomenological evidence for the
reality of chance or indetermination. Instead, it is to contend that radical
change or spontaneous innovation, if it exists, must be accounted for at the
ontological level in a way that plasticity does not.531 Otherwise, we need not
assume that it actually exists.
Weiss is no doubt right to be on guard against plasticitys tendency
toward fixity. While theoretically open to infinite permutations, our habits
often do seem to become rigid or, at the limit, petrified. Our desire for
organization and functional efficiency promote this social danger.532
The power of plasticity faces the constant threat of fixity, homeostasis,
sedimentation, conservatism, dogmatism, intolerance. Even though it does
lend a necessary degree of stability to our corporeal disposition, fixity also
signals the arrest of plasticitys capacity to yield to influences. Another name
for this arrest is death. When the body can no longer tolerate transformation,
whether because of illness, trauma, or structural disintegration, it has
ceased to live. The challenge for the model of plasticity I am defending is
to first conceive the plastic bodys ontology, its structure and prospects for
alteration; and, second, to exhibit some of the practical measures available
for preserving the suppleness of plasticity and increasing the bodys power
to exist. The greater part of my effort has addressed the first prong of this
challenge. Let us now distill some practical principles.

230Conclusion

In Praise of Suppleness:
Censorship and the Virtue of Exposure
The body is an aesthetic phenomenon. Its aesthetic composition is arranged
according to the sensations it metabolizes from the environment. In order to
maintain a suppleness of composition, the body must not only avoid circuits
of experience that arrest its plasticity, it must actively expose itself to percepts
and affects that intensify its power by bolstering its tolerance, that enable
it to radiate new sensations and pleasurable affects.533 This principle of
exposure offers a counterargument to the defense of censorship inaugurated
by Platos expulsion of artists from the Kallipolis, and his disparagement
of mimesis on both epistemological and pedagogical grounds. Aesthetic
exposure offers the antithesis of censorship and an antidote to intolerance.
Censorship is enforced sensory deprivation. It is deliberate resistance to
aesthetic exposure, enforced upon one individual who does not yet know
what she can become, by another individual who already does know, but
fears or rejects this potential. What gets censored is typically cited as painful,
dangerous, or socially unsavory. The intention here might be admirable,
especially when children are involved. But in order to be effective the censor
must always presume to know what bodies can and will do. And yet, this is
precisely the question which remains indefinitely open for each one of us.
When we say that children are impressionable, we mean to say that they
are easily influenced, that influences can stick, and therefore that we must
think twice about exposing them to explicit material. In this we both
recognize and fear the maximally supple plasticity which, as infants, requires
environmental and interpersonal stimulation for the child to adequately
connect and grow with its surroundings.534
Given the advances of technology, evolutionary theory and genetic
enhancement, as well as our posthuman aspirations and the pervasive desire
to multiply the dimensions of the real, there is no precise way to calculate
the possible transmutations of the body. The potential of the child is not a
predetermined or natural fate, although it can be contrived to be so. The
child possesses an internal force that Dewey identifies doubly as immaturity
and plasticity, or the power to grow and develop dispositions that will enable
the acquisition of new habits and, therefore, new powers to exist.535 The
vitality concentrated in the body of the child horrifies us, not because it

Plasticity and Power 231

is autodestructive, but because we cannot fathom what it may convert its


impressions, explicit or otherwise, into. We cite its vulnerability to justify
reinforcing our regimes of perception, when we could instead encourage
its plasticity to unleash its unimaginable power to grow through education
and experimentation.536
Because we are ignorant of the future of our bodies, there is no telling
which individual, social, or ecological compositions will enhance our power.
Our ignorance should compel us to remain open to whichever aesthetics
our bodies can tolerate, not just the fine, innocuous, beautiful, or sublime,
but also the sinister, gruesome, disgusting, horrificthe totality of the
real. When the identity of individuals necessarily depends on a panoply of
local and foreign populations, then political fightsfor media exposure,
for arts endowments and education, for environmental protection, for
ergonomic working conditionsare inherently ecological. Our ecological
life is an assemblage of objects, humans, animals, energies, elements, and
dark forces beyond our ken. The alterity that summons our responsibility,
our responsiveness, lurks immanently in the very plasticity of this ecology.
Plasticity, writes Malabou, designates the form of a world without any
exteriority, a world in which the other appears as utterly other precisely
because she is not someone else.537 This world is not simply uncanny, it is
eminently strange.
Embracing the principle of exposure requires a double affirmation. First,
a Dionysian affirmation of all that appears.538 Second, an affirmation of
chance encounters, of accidents that may or may not disrupt our tendencies
toward fixity and intolerance. There is a pragmatic reason to face the
obvious risks of exposure. We cannot know what encounters will yield,
or what will become of us when faced with aesthetic forces that threaten
to dismantle or reassemble our identity.539 Even if we could attune our
perception to the minute intricacies of the aesthetic, we would still be
incapable of comprehending the impact sensations have on our capacity
to act and be acted upon. They are forever anterior to perception; they
strike straight at the center of the body, like lightning. As Deleuze and
Levinas have taught us, the body is immediately seized by the rhythm of
sensation and forced to participate in its own representation. Aesthetic
experience produces a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent,

232Conclusion

assumption, initiative or freedom, because the subject is caught up and


carried away by it.540 The aesthetic produces affects, and these affects
individuate, but they do so anonymously and at the risk of disfiguration/
deformation. Such is the diachronic and dissensual nature of sensation.541
If our aesthetic responses remain, from this perspective, aleatory and
anonymous affairs, then we cannot know what aesthetics can do for us
or, better put, what it can do to us. We can only experiment to find out
what works and where it takes us. This may come through self-fashioning,
pushing the avant-garde, or constructing new environments and preserving
the extant unique.542 The options are diverse and should focus as much on
the everyday as the extraordinary, since, as Paul Duncum argues, ordinary,
everyday aesthetic experiences are more significant than experiences of high
art in forming and informing ones identity and view of the world beyond
personal experience.543 Experimentation keeps our plasticity supple, open
to influences that can intensify our tolerance. It is amor fati, education
by chance. As Dewey argues, the purpose of experimentation is to allow
freedom to grow; educations purpose is to exercise our plasticity and
thereby position us to democratize our social organization.544 As goes the
institution, so goes its subjects.
The principle of exposure should not be cast in a conservative light.
It is not advocating that we, in the name of tolerance, expose ourselves to
exotic experiences or new cultures or foreign agents merely for the sake of
understanding the other. Nor is it echoing the humanistic ideal of exposing
oneself to artwork in the name of moral edification. Its aspirations are more
radical. When we expose our bodies to the entire domain of the aesthetic
we effectively expose ourselves to deformation and welcome the possibility
of reconfiguration, perhaps beyond recognition. And it is precisely our
plasticity that would facilitate this potential deformation. The aesthetic
harbors the potential to increase or decrease our power, or to transform us
into something else altogether.
Diversification and annihilation compose the life of the environment.
Some aesthetic experiences bring joy and pleasure, other pain and sadness.
Trauma is a real possibility, but so is ecstasy. When we are affected our
power is modified for better or worse. In either case affects exceed us at the
same time as they individuate us, according to the dynamic nature of our

Plasticity and Power 233

corporeal disposition.545 Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they


go beyond the strength of those who undergo them, write Deleuze and
Guattari.546 The paradox of exposure is that in order for a finite plastic body
to stave off the inevitable compromise of its integrity (fixity or breakage),
that body must risk exposure to deformation or death. It must be pushed to
the outer limits of its threshold in order to figure out what it is and what it
might accomplish. In Serres words:
If you want to save yourself, take risks. If you want to save
your soul, do not hesitate, here and now, to entrust it to the
variable storm. An inconstant aurora borealis burst forth in
the night. It spreads, blazing and bleeding, like those footlights
that never stop blinking, whether they are switched on or off.
It either passes or doesnt, but flows elsewhere in a rainbowcoloured stream. You will not change if you do not yield to
these inconstancies and deviations. More importantly, you will
not know.547
Freedom is nothing other than the dispositional necessity of the body, or
the capacity of the body to exist and act according to the law organizing its
dynamic constitution. This necessity, which at once individuates the body
as this singular individual with this singular threshold of power, is precisely
what Spinoza calls the virtue and right of the body.548 As Balibar explains,
the individuals right includes all that he is effectively able to do and to
think in a given set of conditions.549 As such, the power of an individual is
necessarily limited by ecological factors: internally by the other bodies in
the assemblage (friends), externally by those assemblages acting according
to a different ratio of motion and rest (enemies). The freedom I call mine
is a transient power, susceptible to the health and disease, joy and sadness,
of the totality of animate and inanimate bodies with which I interact at
any given time.
To be free is to understand as much as possible the myriad ways in which
ones body is acted upon, restricted or enabled, by the bodies composing
it as an individualin other words, how individuals are determined. In
Deleuzes terms, our power is mapped along the lines of longitude and
latitude, intensities (affects) and extensities (components) that intersect
our body.550

234Conclusion

We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do,


in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot
enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of
another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by
it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or join with
it in composing a more powerful body.551
Where Kant would offer a practical rationality immune to the contingencies
of the corporeal world and its natural laws, Spinoza gives us a body whose
freedom is necessitated by the field of causal encounters that engender its
singularity. Insofar as we can diagram and negotiate these encounters
which could not have been otherwise than they arewe are said to be free.552
At any given moment we do not know what a body can do, or which
encounters will intensify its capacity to affect and be affected. As Spinoza
reminds us, nobody as yet has determined the limits of the bodys
capabilities; that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the
body can and cannot do, without being determined by the mind, solely
from the laws of its own nature insofar as it is considered as corporeal.553
One way to approach the transgression of these limits is to diagram all of
the ways in which the body is etched, chiseled, painted, and polished by the
aesthetic environment, and then to build and preserve sites that will work
on us differently. Foucault named this work of emancipation the critical
ontology of ourselves, which he advocated as an attitude, an ethics, a
philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the
same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an
experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.554 There is no telling
how a particular aesthetic will strike us or how our senses will react to its
stimuli. Despite this uncertainty, if we desire to do more than simply dwell
in environments that reveal to us what we already know about ourselves, or
reinforce the complex of habits that automate our habitus, then we will find
ourselves compelled to speculate about and produce aesthetics that enable
our bodies to realize unimaginable performances.

Notes

Foreword
1.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London:


Routledge, 1962), 132.

2.

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 131, 132.

3.

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 141.

4.

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 107-108.

5.

Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh:


Duquesne University Press, 1974), 90.

6.

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh:


Duquesne University Press, 1969), 155.

7.

Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 198.

8.

Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 90, translation modified.

9.

Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 50-51.

10. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 65-66, italics omitted.

Chapter 1
11. Glen A. Mazis, Earthbodies: Rediscovering Our Planetary Senses (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 2002), 3.
12. Csar Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, trans. Chris Andrews
(New York: New Directions, 2006), 32-33.
13. Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, II, in The Extant Remains, trans. Cyril Bailey
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926), 95, emphasis added.

238Notes
14. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1996), Bxxvii-Bxxvii.
15. In this respect I am following Heideggers idiosyncratic interpretation of Kants
first Critique as a work in fundamental ontology, that is, an exploration of the
understanding as the pre-ontological condition which gives rise to a theory of
being qua being. This interpretation is given in Martin Heidegger, Kant and the
Problem of Metaphysics, fifth edition, enlarged, trans. Richard Taft (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1997).
16. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1987), 260, 261.
17. Kant, Critique of Judgment, 261-262.
18. Kant, Critique of Judgment, 266-267.
19. Paul Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1996), 37.
20. Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, 37.
21. The naturalistic fallacy is committed when a person tries to derive an ought
from an is, or when they deduce a moral claim from a natural (or ontological)
fact. It is commonly acknowledged that G.E. Moore identifies the naturalistic fallacy in Principia Ethica.
22. See, for example, Gilles Deleuzes explication of the Active and Reactive in
Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1983), 39-72.
23. Lawrence Hass, Merleau-Pontys Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 2008), 111, contends that we cannot regard Merleau-Ponty as a monist
because there is always a distance between the behaving body and the self, as well
as between the perceiver and the sensible. But Merleau-Ponty maintains that we
are our bodies; this identification is one of the most innovative moments in his
philosophy. Moreover, it is not enough to cite this distance, as Hass does; it must
also be explained. Otherwise, we preclude monism a priori and introduce a mystery at the heart of the flesh. So what are we to make of this self? There is either a
new dualism or a new monism at play in Merleau-Ponty and it seems we are given
a choice: either continue to speak of a mysterious self that operates in or as
the body, or speak of the body as a thing that senses and perceives (or a subjectobject), as Merleau-Ponty does in The Philosopher and His Shadow, in Signs,
trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964),
166/210. The latter is the more radical and preferable choice. It puts the burden
of accounting for the non-physical subject on Merleau-Pontys readers. The
language is what is difficult here, but it is better to attempt to speak of the bodys
subjectivity as a sensing thing, rather than distinguish between the lived body and
the physical body, a distinction that runs the risk of instituting a new dualism or
perpetuating a theological element in Merleau-Pontys philosophy.
24. Renaud Barbaras, The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Pontys Ontology, trans.
Ted Toadvine and Leonard Lawlor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
2004), xxiv.
25. Throughout the book I use the terms sensory, sensitive, sensuous, and
sensible synonymously. I employ sensual only where there is a libidinal or
erotic connotation.

Notes239
26. See especially the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, for instance, Corpus, trans. Richard
A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008) and Jacques Derridas On
TouchingJean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christine Irizzary (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2005).
27. A notable exception in the phenomenological tradition to the claim that most
philosophers of the body uphold a non-dualist perspective is Michel Henry.
Henry provides a helpful contrast in the context of affectivity. Henrys notion of
autoaffection retains certain personalist elements of dualism, but complicates
the picture. Indeed, the problem of embodiment as the problem of incarnation is
basically theological and calls for a dualistic solution, and Henry is certainly not
the only philosopher who offers a theological phenomenology of incarnation. On
this issue in general, see Natalie Depraz, Lincarnation Phnomnologique, Un
Problme Non-thologique?, Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 55, no. 3 (1993): 496-518.
28. For Hegel, see John Russon, The Self and Its Body in Hegels Phenomenology
of Spirit (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001); for Kant, see Angelica
Nuzzo, Ideal Embodiment: Kants Theory of Sensibility (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2008); for Husserl, see James Dodd, Idealism and Corporeity: An
Essay on the Problem of the Body in Husserls Phenomenology (Dordrecht: Kluwer,
1997); for Heidegger, see Frank Schalow, The Incarnality of Being: The Earth,
Animals, and the Body in Heideggers Thought (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 2007).
29. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and
its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), xi. Their attention to Dewey and Merleau-Ponty in this text is unfortunately restricted to the
Acknowledgements section. It should be noted that their admiration for Dewey
and Merleau-Ponty comes from the fact that both thinkers were practitioners of
what Lakoff and Johnson call empirically responsible philosophy, which I interpret to mean that it is their synthetic methodologythe attempt to wed first-person
and third-person perspectivesthat Lakoff and Johnson find laudable about the
pragmatist and phenomenologist.
30. Such is the conclusion drawn by the eliminative materialism of Paul and Patricia
Churchland. See, for example, Patricia Smith Churchland, Neurophilosophy:
Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989)
and Paul Churchland, The Neurocomputational Perspective: The Nature of Mind and
the Structure of Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992). For a more modest
attempt to close the gap between phenomenology and the brain sciences, see the
various attempts to naturalize phenomenology which are being met with resistance by phenomenologys orthodox adherents. See, for example, Bryan Smith,
Merleau-Ponty and the Naturalization of Phenomenology, Philosophy Today 54
(2010): 153-162.
31. Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 175.
32. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, 275-278.
33. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, xi-xii.
34. Johnson points to Deweys principle of continuity as the guiding principle of
his naturalistic theory in The Meaning of the Body, 10. For a perspective on how
phenomenology bridges the internalist/externalist gap, see Shaun Gallagher and
Dan Zahavi, The Phenomenological Mind: An Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and
Cognitive Science (London: Routledge, 2008), 121-126.

240Notes
35. Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 5.
36. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, 103.
37. Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 9.
38. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, 27.
39. Phenomenological philosophy is at its best when it is empirically responsible, as
Lakoff and Johnson would say. But by the same token, we should not assume that
all good philosophy is empirically verifiable. Philosophical critique, as Kant teaches in the first Critique, always leaves a bit of room for metaphysics. His principle is
even more pertinent given the finite perspective afforded us as embodied minds.
40. To my knowledge, the only text which attempts a thorough philosophical history
of the concept of sensation is D.W. Hamlyns Sensation and Perception: A History of
the Philosophy of Perception (New York: Humanities Press, 1961). Daniel HellerRoazens The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (New York: Zone, 2007)
secondarily serves as a history of sensation, but its focus is on the sense of sensing,
not sensation itself.
41. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London:
Routledge, 1962), 4/10. Hereafter cited parenthetically as PP with English and
French page references.
42. This claim is perhaps a bit unfair in the case of Descartes, who was certainly
interested in the senses, but Descartes interest is more scientific or physicalist in
texts like the Treatise on Light, Optics, and Treatise on Man.
43. Davide Panagias The Political Life of Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press,
2009), 28.
44. See Tom Rockmore, In Kants Wake: Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (Malden,
MA: Blackwell, 2006), especially chapter 5, and Lee Braver, A Thing of This
World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 2007).
45. This epistemological view, which sees the world of experience as fundamentally
constructed by the mind of the observer, opposes the objectivist ontology of
empiricism and the representational theory of knowledge it engenders. The world
of the empiricist is populated by a multitude of discrete objects which exist in
themselves and interact with each other according to causal laws. Humans come
to know these objects, their properties, and their laws of interaction by observing their behavior. All of this information, claims the empiricist, is transmitted
to our minds by sensations. David Hume, arguably Kants most provocative
predecessor, formulates the empiricist view in the Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 10. Hume holds that, corresponding
to the discrete objects of the external world, the mind is constituted such that it
receives discrete impressions from the world. These impressions are simple, disparate perceptual states that only get connected to one another after the fact, by
habits of the mind. The classical empiricists perceptual world is not comprised of
a stream of consciousness like the kind William James and Husserl speak about.
Representationalist interpretations fail to adhere to Kants claim that we can
never access the things in themselves to verify the accuracy of our representations.
Thus, the constructivist reading is more persuasive than the representationalist,
even if Kant calls the objects of perception representations (Vorstellungen).

Notes241
46. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans.
Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008), 7.
47. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Bxvi-xviii, B62.
48. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A19/B33.
49. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B1.
50. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B1-B2.
51. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, in The Primacy of
Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art,
History and Politics, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press,
1964), 14. This account of practical synthesis is filled out as operative intentionality, an update of what Husserl calls passive synthesis, in Phenomenology of
Perception.
52. For an extended treatment of the problem of individuation in Kant, see Alberto
Toscano, The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation between Kant and
Deleuze (New York: Palgrave, 2006).
53. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B34/A20.
54. For Kant, causality is a category of the understanding and therefore applicable
only to phenomena. He cannot claim that the noumenal realm has causal power
(such as the power to cause sensations) because that would make causality an
extra-subjective law, which is something he rejects. This is originally Maimons
objection.
55. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1977), 29.
56. Samuel Todes, Body and World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
57. Todes, Body and World, 159.
58. Todes, Body and World, 174, emphasis added. Levinas extensively argues a
similar point in his discussions of separation, habitation/dwelling, and enjoyment in Totality and Infinity. These are places where we see most clearly what I
am calling Levinass material ontology. The relevant subsections of Totality and
Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969),
Separation as Life, Enjoyment and Representation, I and Dependence, and
The Dwelling will be studied in chapter 4.
59. Todes, Body and World, 161.
60. Todes, Body and World, 170.
61. See Erwin Straus, The Upright Posture, Psychiatric Quarterly 26 (1952):
529-561.
62. Todes, Body and World, 106, 118.
63. Todes, Body and World, 173, emphasis added.
64. Todes, Body and World, 174.
65. Angelica Nuzzo, Kant and Herder on Baumgartens Aesthetica, Journal of the
History of Philosophy 44, no. 4 (October 2006): 587.
66. Kant and Herder, 578.

242Notes
67. Nuzzo, Ideal Embodiment, 5.
68. Nuzzo, Ideal Embodiment, 10-11.
69. Nuzzo, Kant and Herder, 577-597.
70. See Charles Taylor, The Validity of Transcendental Arguments, in Philosophical
Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), where Taylor
argues for a continuity between the transcendental approaches of Kant and
Merleau-Ponty.
71. Nuzzo, Kant and Herder, 582.
72. As Nuzzo points out (Kant and Herder, 596), this is similar to Herders criticism of Kant. Herder preferred a historicism which sought to grasp genetically
and materially the origins of historical human individuality whereas Kants
transcendental inquiry into the human cognitive faculty is an investigation of the
a priori sources and validity of our judgments (597).
73. Nuzzo, Kant and Herder, 584.
74. Nuzzo, Kant and Herder, 587.
75. This is the consequence of overcoming the subject-object duality retained by
Kant. The implications for Merleau-Ponty, along with Husserl, Heidegger, and
others who reject the essential distinction of subject and object are apparent. See
Tom Rockmore, Cognition: An Introduction to Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 23, passim.
76. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 60. Regarding the possibility of immediate acquaintance, Hegel also writes: In apprehending [an object], we must refrain from
trying to comprehend it, 58.
77. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 59.
78. See Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 56-57.
79. Irmgard Scherer, The Problem of the A Priori in Sensibility: Revisiting
Kants and Hegels Theories of the Senses, The Review of Metaphysics 52, no. 2
(December 1998), 362.
80. This is a reference, of course, to Hegels criticism of Kant (echoed by Todes) from
The Encyclopedia Logic, trans. T.F. Geraets et al. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991),
11: But to want to have cognition before we have any is as absurd as the wise
resolve of Scholasticus to learn to swim before he ventured into the water.
81. Husserl remains close to Hegel when he writes: An object that has being in itself
(an sich seiender) is never such as to be out of relation to consciousness and its Ego. The
thing is thing of the world about me, even the thing that is not seen and the really
possible thing, not experienced. Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction
to Pure Phenomenology, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (New York: Collier, 1962), 134.
Hereafter cited as Ideas I.
82. On the one hand, like Merleau-Ponty, Husserl maintains that the object of
consciousness evidently transcends consciousness; the evidence of this lies in
its perspectival presentation (43 of Ideas I points out that even God could not
perceive non-perspectivally). On the other hand, although he admits that objects
are given to us in one blow (see the sixth Logical Investigation), Husserl says
that we must build up the unity of objects with increasing completeness through
perceptual continua harmoniously developed, and through certain methodic

Notes243
thought-forms grounded in experience (Ideas I, 138). This last remark seems
to align Husserl with Hegel and against Kant, and to replace the actuality of the
thing in itself with the intuition of an essential appearance.
83. Scherer, The Problem of the A Priori in Sensibility, 364. Form is the Concept
which, fully developed, is the I or pure self-consciousness.
84. This is why I treat twentieth-century phenomenologyoccasionally reinscribing
it in older terms and categoriesas a moment in the history of philosophy and not
as a movement that radically breaks with this history, which is a common way to
regard the effect of the various reductions performed by phenomenologists.
85. Tom Rockmore, Kant and Phenomenology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2011), 101. To a great extent I follow Rockmores characterization of phenomenology as an extension of German idealism, which is why I insist that phenomenology, even in its corporeal form, cannot provide us with a metaphysical realism.
86. Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, trans. J.N. Findlay, vol. 2 (New York:
Humanity Books, 1970), Introduction, 7; Ideas I, 24.
87. Mark Rowlands, Externalism: Putting Mind and World Back Together Again
(Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2003), 61.
88. As the principle of all principles states (Ideas I, 83, emphasis omitted): every
primordial dator Intuition is a source of authority (Rechstquelle) for knowledge
whatever presents itself in intuition in primordial form (as it were in its bodily
reality), is simply to be accepted as it gives itself out to be, though only within the
limits in which it then presents itself.
89. Rockmore, Kant and Phenomenology, 120.
90. There is a long tradition in philosophy of mind that sees sensation as internal to
the subject. Now, it is one thing to make sensation internal to the body and another thing to make it internal to consciousness. I take Husserl to be doing the latter,
but not necessarily the former. In fact, he explicitly contests the view that sensations (Empfindungen) are internal to the body in Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining
to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book, trans.
Richard Rojcewicz and Andre Schuwer (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989).
91. Husserl, Ideas I, 227.
92. Dodd, Idealism and Corporeity, 46.
93. Husserl, Logical Investigations, vol. 2, 814, 815.
94. Husserl, Ideas I, 226.
95. See Alia Al-Saji, Rhythms of the Body: A Study of Sensation, Time and
Intercorporeity in the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (PhD dissertation,
Emory University, 2002), 1.
96. See Husserl, Ideas I, 85.
97. Husserl, Ideas I, 227: Whether sensile experiences in the stream of experience
are of necessity everywhere the subjects of some kind of animating synthesis
which informs them or, as we also say, whether they ever take their part in
intentional functions, does not here call for decision.
98. Dodd, Idealism and Corporeity, 46.

244Notes
99. Husserl, Ideas I, 45. He goes on to specify that to have something real primordially given, and to become aware of it and perceive it in simple intuition, are one
and the same thing. Yet, in The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental
Phenomenology, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press,
1970), 164, Husserl admits that each of our perceptions is simply an appearance
of an object that transcends each of its perspectives. That is, he admits the thing
in itself into his ontologybut on what grounds? Is he not in the same position
as Kant, forced only to speculate on the givenness of the thing in itself and thus
break from the phenomenological attitude?
100. Husserl, Ideas I, 128-129.
101. Rowlands, Externalism, 60. Rowlands calls Husserls position methodological or
logical idealism and argues (see chapter 4 of his book) that it is actually Sartre
who effects a radical reversal of Husserls idealism by insisting that consciousness has no content, is nothing at all. Thus, content must come from somewhere
outside consciousness.
102. Husserl, Ideas I, 228.
103. Husserl, Ideas I, 228.
104. Husserl, Ideas I, 228.
105. Husserl, Ideas I, 229.
106. Husserl, Ideas I, 229, 230; Dodd, Idealism and Corporeity, 44-45.
107. Dodd, Idealism and Corporeity, 45, writes: Insofar as the thing is present in perceptual consciousness an apprehension that bears within itself a sense-content is
involved; sensation itself, however, is not to be confused with anything thinglyrealwhich means, within the transcendental perspective, that sensation does not
belong to the noematic [object side] correlate of the act of perception.
108. Husserl, Ideas I, 233.
109. Al-Saji, Rhythms of the Body, 2.
110. Al-Saji, Rhythms of the Body, 4. For a thorough analysis of similar themes in
Merleau-Ponty, see David Morris, The Sense of Space (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 2004).
111. See Alia Al-Saji, The Site of Affect in Husserls Phenomenology: Sensations
and the Constitution of the Lived Body, Philosophy Today 44, SPEP Supplement
(2000): 51-59, where she shows how Husserl allows us to rethink sensation as a
creative, differentiating, and dynamic multiplicity, as the way we feel our contact
with the world, with others, and with our own life (52).
112. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press,
1997), 1.
113. Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 12. Russell here echoes Berkeley on sensation
(A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge [Indianapolis: Hackett,
1982], 87): Colour, figure, motion, extension and the like, considered only as
so many sensations in the mind, are perfectly known, there being nothing in them
which is not perceived. See Ayers The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (New
York: Macmillan, 1940) and J.L. Austins reply in Sense and Sensibilia (London:
Oxford University Press, 1962).

Notes245
114. The constancy hypothesis is a staple of direct realism, but it problematically
situates perception in the mind and therefore sets up a questionable kind of correspondence. Merleau-Ponty summarizes: Hence we have in principle a pointby-point correspondence and constant connection between the stimulus and the
elementary perception (PP 8/14).
115. Externalism, writes Rowlands, is the view that not all mental things are exclusively located inside the head of the person or creature that has these things. See
Externalism, 2.
116. Merleau-Ponty resists such a view when he writes in a working note of The Visible
and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 1968), 250, that the flesh of the world is not self-sensing (se sentir) as is my
fleshIt is sensible and not sentientI call it flesh nonetheless in order to say
that it is a pregnancy of possibles. Even in this later text, which is often thought
to overcome the latent dualism of the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty
retains a dualism which separates being into two spheres, the human and the nonhuman, but this division comes without explanation. Precisely how this division
comes to be, if it actually exists, is a metaphysical problem that Merleau-Ponty
does not work through.
117. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, abridged and edited by
Kenneth Winkler (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), 49.
118. Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, 1. Of course, Berkeley found faith
in mind-independent (but not God-independent) objects repugnant, but his
conviction that objects are nothing more than collectives of qualities provides a
true model of the theory of objects I am presupposing here and will elaborate in
subsequent texts.
119. For objectivity, I follow for the most part the realist theory of objects developed
by Graham Harman, principally in his Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics
of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002) and Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology
and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), as well Stephen
Mumfords Dispositions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Consequently,
the ethics of things defended by Silvia Benso in her book The Face of Things: A
Different Side of Ethics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000) is allied
with my project.
120. The idea that objects possess capacities or powers, as well as the ontological
status of these powers, is the subject of a debate in analytic philosophy, a short
overview of which can be found in the introduction to George Molnar, Powers:
A Study in Metaphysics, ed. Stephen Mumford (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2003). Occasionally I will distinguish between the ontological and practical sense
of power. The sense of the virtual I intend here is taken from Gilles Deleuze,
Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1994), 208: The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The
virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual.
121. See Ernst Mach, The Analysis of Sensations, trans. C.M. Williams and Sydney
Waterlow (New York: Dover, 1959), 5. Mach allies himself with the philosophy
of immanence and cites Spinoza as his original predecessor (46), a point we will
return to in our discussion of bodies, plasticity, and corporeal integrity.
122. The language and ontology of dispositions I borrow directly from Mumford,
Dispositions, vi and 5. Mumfords ontology of dispositions appears to have many
points of contact with Deleuzes ontology of the actual and virtual, but this book

246Notes
is not the place to delve into the comparison. See also Molnars five features of
powersdirectedness, independence, actuality, intrinsicality, objectivityin
Powers, 8-9.
123. Alva No, Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 143. On the
effects of color contrast on the appearance of color, see Josef Albers, Interaction of
Color (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963).
124. This formulation is more appropriate for the account of embodiment given in
Phenomenology of Perception, where the consciousness-object duality is still at play.
Merleau-Ponty acknowledges the inadequacy of this model in The Visible and the
Invisible, 200/253; a reformulation is evident in his searching discussion of the
two leaves of the body (135-138/178-183). What exactly remains out of step
with the world is open for debate, although good candidates are volition, imagination, and emotion.
125. The diacritical nature of perception is affirmed by Merleau-Ponty in The Visible
and the Invisible, 213/267, and likewise in the chapter on The Thing and the
Natural World in Phenomenology.
126. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2010).
127. Aristotle, De Anima, trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle (Grinnell: Peripatetic Press,
1981), 416b34-35.
128. I begin to explore the theme of sensory alimentation and its ethical potential in
Enabling/Disabling Sensation: Toward an Alimentary Imperative in Carnal
Phenomenology, Philosophy Today 52, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 99-115.

Chapter 2
129. It must always be kept in view that when Merleau-Ponty, or any philosopher at
all, speaks about perception, it is always human perception that is denoted. This
makes it quite difficult, it seems to me, for an ontology grounded in human perception to escape anthropocentrism.
130. Gary Brent Madison, The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty: A Search for the Limits
of Consciousness (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1981), 7.
131. For an extended critique of the physicalist/neurobiological (objectivist) account
of pain from a Merleau-Pontyan perspective, see Abraham Olivier, Being in Pain
(Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2007). Merleau-Pontys The Structure of Behavior, trans.
Alden Fisher (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1963) is a book which
demonstrates that positivistic approaches to psychology fail to adequately explain
human behavior because they miss the phenomenon of structure identified and
analyzed by Gestalt psychology. Following the Gestalt theorists as well as phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty redefines behavior as a meaning-laden phenomenon
that cannot be explained solely by reflex theories, but needs rather a principle
that accounts for the relevance of stimuli (SB 99/109).
132. It is true that Merleau-Ponty calls the body the third term in the figure-ground
structure specifically in the context of a discussion of spatiality. But if all perception is situated in a spatiotemporal horizon, and perception is the origin of both

Notes247
determinate objects and objective thought, then we must consider the body as
conditioning every horizon of experience.
133. M.C. Dillon, Merleau-Pontys Ontology, second edition (Evanston: Northwestern
University Press, 1988), Introduction.
134. On Merleau-Pontys idealism, see Madison, The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty,
32; Barbaras, The Being of the Phenomenon, 14ff.
135. Since the present chapter is concerned specifically with the ontology of the body,
I will forgo discussion of the way in which the primacy of perception thesis cuts
across traditional intellectualist/rationalist and empiricist epistemologies and refer
the reader to the secondary literature, especially the books by Dillon, Madison,
Hass, and de Waelhens.
136. Objects are not simply postulated as transcendent in order to account for the content of perception, their transcendence is evinced in the way they resist appropriation and only ever present themselves to us incompletely or perspectivally. This is
doubly true of other persons. See Merleau-Ponty, PrP 18/53; PP 322-323/372.
137. John Sallis, Phenomenology and the Return to Beginnings (New York: Humanities
Press, 1973), 30.
138. Sallis, Phenomenology and the Return to Beginnings, 31. Merleau-Ponty maintains
that the object, rather than the subject, remains aloof from perception, that it
remains self-sufficient (PP 322/372). See also Merleau-Pontys discussion of
Strattons experiment in PP 248-251/287-291. For an alternative reading of the
Kantian subject as transcendentally embodied and therefore rooted in the world
and capable of distinguishing up from down, see Nuzzo, Ideal Embodiment.
139. Sallis, Phenomenology and the Return to Beginnings, 30.
140. Sallis, Phenomenology and the Return to Beginnings, 34.
141. Merleau-Ponty also says, and this we will take up below to determine the priority
of sensation, that sense experience is the intentional tissue that makes the world
present as a familiar setting of our life (PP 52-53/64-65).
142. Sallis, Phenomenology and the Return to Beginnings, 35, 36.
143. Sallis, Phenomenology and the Return to Beginnings, 36.
144. Merleau-Ponty refers to the silent knowing and pre-meaning and sedimented meaning of these existentials [existentiaux] numerous times in the Working
Notes of The Visible and the Invisible. They are the unconscious articulations of
our field (VI 180/233-234) and seem to be analogous to what Heidegger intends
by existentialia, or the ontological structures of Dasein, in Being and Time. See
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson
(San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1962), 9.
145. Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, xi.
146. Her corporeal schema is for itselffor the otherIt is the hinge of the for itself
and the for the other (VI 189/243).
147. Consider Merleau-Pontys remark that we are given over to the object and we
merge into this body which is better informed than we are about the world, and
about the motives we have and the means at our disposal for synthesizing it (PP
238/276).

248Notes
148. It is well known that Colin Smiths translation of Phenomenology of Perception
translates schma corporel sometimes as body image and other times as body
schema, which is problematic because these two terms signify disparate phenomena. Shaun Gallagher, How the Body Shapes the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2005), has sifted through the plentiful literature on the body image and
body schema in order to clarify their difference and standardize their reference.
He proposes the following: A body image consists of a system of perceptions, attitudes and beliefs pertaining to ones own body. In contrast, a body schema is a system of sensory-motor capacities that function without awareness or the necessity
of perceptual monitoring (24). Gallagher further notes that when Merleau-Ponty
writes of the schma corporel he intends a system of dynamic motor equivalents
that belong to the realm of habit rather than conscious choice (20). Part 1 of
Morriss The Sense of Space unpacks Merleau-Pontys understanding of the body
schema as an ensemble of habituated styles (39) and further insists that schma
corporel always be rendered as body schema when translating Merleau-Ponty. This
is the best way to avoid mistaking the schma corporel for something representational, personal, or explicitly intentional.
149. Body-subject and world are ultimately mutually constituting despite all the
emphasis placed just on the subjective constitution of the world in Phnomnologie
de la Perception. Neither would be what it is without the other. Stephen Priest,
Merleau-Ponty (London: Routledge, 1998), 74.
150. Priest (Merleau-Ponty, 57) notes that Merleau-Pontys originality lies in the idea
that subjectivity is physical. Neither materialism, idealism, nor dualism includes
the thesis that I am my body; that I am a subjective object or a physical subject.
151. Dillon, Merleau-Pontys Ontology, 146.
152. Dillon, Merleau-Pontys Ontology, 146.
153. Dillon, Merleau-Pontys Ontology, 147.
154. When I speak of Merleau-Pontys phenomenology of perception as a transcendental philosophy, it must be kept in mind that the transcendental in MerleauPonty is never a pure a priori, but as M.C. Dillon has shown (Apriority in Kant
and Merleau-Ponty, Kant-Studien 17, no. 3 [1987]: 403-423), neither a priori nor
a posteriori. This neither/nor once again supports Barbarass claim that MerleauPonty remains caught up in old dualisms and can only situate himself negatively in
the tradition he seeks to overcome. In any case, Merleau-Pontys transcendental is
a historical transcendental, a concept we will come to grips with later. The historical
transcendental will be reconstituted in terms of plasticity, with specific reference
to Deleuze, DeLanda, and Spinoza, in chapter 5.
155. Merleau-Pontys view of time is undoubtedly intersubjective, as when he says that
events are shapes cut out by a finite observer from the spatio-temporal totality
of the objective world (PP 411/470). By objective here, he means intersubjective: time is the totality of events carved out of being by the totality of observers.
Nearly the entire temporality chapter of the Phenomenology supports this subjectivist view of time, which is problematic from the realist perspective I am advocating
here.
156. This unconscious is to be sought not at the bottom of ourselves, behind the
back of our consciousness, but in front of us, as articulations of our field (VI
180/234).

Notes249
157. This is not to suggest that the Phenomenology does not contain an ontology.
Indeed, after Dillon and others I am trying to bring out some of the ontological dimensions of the theory of embodiment put forth in the Phenomenology. I do
feel, however, that this ontology is hindered (if not contradicted) by the privilege
afforded to the first-person perspective deployed in this early text. The reader may
refer to Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), for my critique of phenomenology as a method for doing ontology.
158. See Heidegger, Being and Time, 16. For the ontological implications of this breakdown, see Harman, Tool-Being. See also Karl Jaspers, General Psychopathology,
trans. J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1963), 88.
159. Shaun Gallagher, Lived Body and Environment, Research in Phenomenology 16
(1986): 152.
160. Dillon, Merleau-Pontys Ontology, 139-150, dispels this notion by contrasting
Merleau-Pontys account of the lived body with Sartres ontological analysis of the
body.
161. For the thesis that the experiential absence of the body is more fundamental
than the ambiguous presence of the body, see Gallagher, Lived Body and
Environment.
162. Madison, The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, 26.
163. David Morris, The Logic of the Body in Bergsons Motor Schemes and MerleauPontys Body Schema, Philosophy Today 44, SPEP Supplement (2000): 65, shows
that The logic of the body in Merleau-Ponty would have to be a cultural-historical logic, a logic of a body already infected with exterior meaning, not just a logic
of internal translations, repetitions, parts and wholes.
164. Madison, The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, 26.
165. Morris, The Logic of the Body, 64.
166. We again see Merleau-Ponty inserting a certain distance between the physical
and lived bodies, and thus imposing a duality of embodiment. This allows him to
denote the habit body as the mediator of a world (PP 145/169). The metaphysical problem that lingers here is that of how the lived body originally separates
itself from its envelopment with the physical environment, or how an impersonal
organism becomes the personal subject of perception. This problem is dodged
by Merleau-Ponty when he posits that by an imperceptible twist an organic
process issues into human behavior (PP 88/104). The problem is ramified in The
Visible and the Invisible because Merleau-Pontys switch to a monist ontology puts
him in the position of explaining the emergence and particularization of perceptual agents. Such a problem is sidestepped from a phenomenological viewpoint
because the phenomenologist takes his or her point of departure from the facticity
of existence and therefore begins his or her analyses from the perspective of an
always already individuated subject. It is, however, in the courses published as
Nature, trans. Robert Vallier (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003)
that Merleau-Ponty takes on the question of the emergence of spirit, which he
tells us is not what descends into the body in order to organize it, but is what
emerges from it (140/188).
167. William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1 (New York: Dover, 1918), 114.

250Notes
168. James, Principles, vol. 1, 116-119. Proprioception describes the tacit ecological
awareness that enables the body to maintain its postural equilibrium.
169. James, Principles, vol. 1, 105, emphasis omitted.
170. Edward S. Casey, Habitual Body and Memory in Merleau-Ponty, Man and
World 17, no. 3/4 (1984): 285.
171. Casey, Habitual Body and Memory in Merleau-Ponty, 285.
172. On the freeing of perception and movement by the sedimentation of habit, see
Flix Ravaisson, Of Habit, trans. Clare Carlisle and Mark Sinclair (London:
Continuum, 2008), 49.
173. Casey distinguishes between the kinds of habits that can be cultivated spontaneously and the habits which are sedimented in the form of customs (Habitual
Body and Memory in Merleau-Ponty, 286-287). His notion of customary habits
is comparable to the social habits that tie us to an economic class, as James identifies (Principles, vol. 1, 121). Customary and class habits have an effect of contraction and should be contrasted with the dilating habits that Merleau-Ponty
elaborates.
174. Clare Carlisle, Creatures of Habit: The Problem and the Practice of Liberation,
Continental Philosophy Review 38 (2006): 23.
175. Casey, Habitual Body and Memory in Merleau-Ponty, 290.
176. Alphonso Lingis, Sensation: Intelligibility in Sensibility (Atlantic Highlands:
Humanities Press, 1996), 1. For Deweys account of how our originally plastic
impulses get channeled into social forms of conduct, see John Dewey, Human
Nature and Conduct (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University
Press, 1988), 69-75.
177. Alphonso Lingis, Body Transformations: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture
(London: Routledge, 2005), 57.
178. For the way affective circuits economize our actions and thereby give rise to the
identities of our bodies, see Tom Sparrow, Bodies in Transit: The Plastic Subject
of Alphonso Lingis, Janus Head 10, no. 1 (Summer/Fall 2007): 114-116.
179. For an ontology of mood, see Heidegger, Being and Time, 29.
180. Hass, Merleau-Pontys Philosophy, 78.
181. I detect in Merleau-Pontys discussion of the physiognomy of color the seeds of a
phenomenology of race, some elements of which I will raise throughout this essay
but will not pursue at length.
182. Cited by Merleau-Ponty in EM 188/87.
183. Gail Weiss, Refiguring the Ordinary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
2008), 79. Weiss points out that it is his loss of an intentional arc that disables the
patient Schneiders capacity to order his world into a coherent, meaningful whole.
The more general point that Merleau-Ponty wants to stress with Schneiders
case is that his pathology cannot be fully explained by appealing to the physical
disablement of a particular brain function.
184. In Merleau-Pontys Critique of Mental Representation, Hubert Dreyfus makes
it clear that the intentional arc is not a representation of the world, but must
be understood as the feedback loop of learning that is established as bodies
interact with other bodies, things, etc. The idea of an intentional arc is meant to

Notes251
capture the idea that all past experience is projected back into the world. The best
representation of the world is thus the world itself. Dreyfuss paper is available at:
<http://www.class.uh.edu/cogsci/dreyfus.html>
185. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, 68.
186. This is perhaps most apparent in The Childs Relations with Others (cf.
108-113/17-23).
187. Shannon Sullivan, Living Across and Through Skins: Transactional Bodies,
Pragmatism, and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 68.
188. A situation becomes neutral when the immediate environment arouses no
concern. An environment void of importance is something that also exists, and in
such an environment, too, stimuli are active, writes Straus in The Primary World
of Senses, 81.
189. See Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx, trans. R. James Goldstein and James
Cascaito (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), 31-32.
190. Sullivan, Living Across and Through Skins, 68.
191. Sullivan, Living Across and Through Skins, 67, 68-69.
192. Alphonso Lingis, Libido: The French Existential Theories (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1985), 55-56. Lingis challenges Merleau-Pontys interpretation
of Schneiders sexual incompetence as a loss of the capacity to order his erotic
world, via the intentional arc, into a meaningful whole. The libido, argues Lingis,
is not a force that is ordered by perceptual structures; nor is it organized teleologically like body motility.
193. George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race
(Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 5. For the full account of whiteness as
ambush, see chapter 7.
194. Black Bodies, White Gazes, 4, 5. Yancy writes: Her body language signifies,
Look, the Black! On this score, though short of a performative locution, her body
language functions as an insult. He goes on to say that, The point here is that
deep-seated racist emotive responses may form part of the white bodily repertoire,
which has become calcified through quotidian modes of bodily transaction in a
racial and racist world.
195. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 111.
196. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 113.
197. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 112.
198. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 112.
199. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 111. Fanon is drawing upon Jean-Paul Sartres
analysis of the look in Being and Nothingness. Yancy shows how the historicoracial schema operates as part of what Foucault calls the positive unconscious,
explaining that My darkness is a signifier of negative values grounded within a
racist social and historical matrix that predates my existential emergence (Black
Bodies, White Gazes, 3). Cf. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York:
Vintage, 1970), xi.
200. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 112-113. For a fuller account of how the black
body is hailed by the white gaze, see Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes, 71-75.
For an account of interpellation as a material practice, see Louis Althusser,

252Notes
Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other
Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001).
201. Citing Iris Marion Young, Cathryn Vasseleu makes this point in Textures of Light:
Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty (London: Routledge,
1998), 57.
202. Sara Ahmed, A Phenomenology of Whiteness, Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007):
150.
203. Ahmed, A Phenomenology of Whiteness, 153.
204. Ahmed, A Phenomenology of Whiteness, 154.
205. Saitos Everyday Aesthetics is devoted to instilling in the reader an appreciation for
the kind of aesthetic (non-theoretical) attitude that can help uncover the sensuous. While I affirm the cultivation of everyday aesthetics, I will also argue that
even a detailed appreciation of the sensuous remains incapable of fully accessing
the sensuous environment.
206. We will examine the motor physiognomy of sensations in the following chapter.
207. This is why Merleau-Ponty insists that it is impossible completely to describe the
colour of the carpet without saying that it is a carpet, made of wool, and without
implying in this colour a certain tactile value, a certain weight and a certain resistance to sound (PP 323/373).
208. The Earth is the matrix of our time as it is of our space. Every constructed notion of time presupposes our proto-history as carnal beings compresent to a single
world, Merleau-Ponty writes in The Philosopher and His Shadow, in Signs,
180/227.
209. Dillon, Apriority in Kant and Merleau-Ponty, 420.
210. Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, 56.
211. Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, 58.
212. Merleau-Ponty insists that expression and existence are reciprocal, that the
body expresses total existence, not because it is an external accompaniment to that
existence, but because existence comes into its own in the body (PP 166/193).
This statement must always be tempered by Merleau-Pontys quasi-transcendentalism, which holds that we always already find ourselves within a sedimented,
linguistic Lebenswelt that limits the range of available styles, and his claim that our
behavior emerges from an animal Umwelt (Nature 208/269). The ontology of the
body must be situated between wild and sedimented being (Nature 220/282).
213. Bernhard Waldenfels, The Paradox of Expression, trans. Chris Nagel, in
Chiasms: Merleau-Pontys Notion of Flesh, eds. Fred Evans and Leonard Lawlor
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 98.
214. Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, 55.
215. Such a conception of identity becomes visible in the paintings of Czanne as well
as in those of the Impressionists, insofar as these artists exploit the thresholds of
form. We have the feeling, for instance, when viewing a Czanne landscape that
its contours are on the cusp of dissolution and chaos, but that a reconfiguration of
those contours could express the same landscape on the verge of a completely
different dissolution. Such is the fluidity of the sensory content which makes up
the form of Czannes subjects and, for Merleau-Ponty, our world.

Notes253
216. Ren Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in Philosophical Essays and
Correspondence, ed. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 110-112.
217. Linda Singer, Merleau-Ponty on the Concept of Style, in The Merleau-Ponty
Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson (Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 1993), 242.
218. Singer, Merleau-Ponty on the Concept of Style, 242.
219. Singer, Merleau-Ponty on the Concept of Style, 242.
220. Gallagher, Lived Body and Environment, 157.
221. Gallagher, Lived Body and Environment, 157.
222. Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1994), 83-84.
223. Sullivan, Living Across and Through Skins, 65, 66.
224. Grosz, Volatile Bodies, 108. See also Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl
and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1990).
225. Weiss, Refiguring the Ordinary, 4.
226. Emmanuel Levinas, Sensibility, in Ontology and Alterity in Merleau-Ponty, eds.
Galen A. Johnson and Michael B. Smith (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 1990), 65.
227. In his discussion of levels (PP 253-254/293-294), Merleau-Ponty acknowledges
a certain contingency and instability at the heart of experience, but does not
explain where this instability comes from. By positing sensation as non-subjective
and below perception, we can account for this instability. For more on levels, see
Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994),
25-38.
228. Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power (quoted in Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy,
204, note 5), In the chemical world the sharpest perception of the difference
between forces reigns. But a protoplasm, which is a multiplicity of chemical forces,
has only a vague and uncertain perception of a strange reality. This sentiment
summarizes the general perspective taken up in Nietzsches philosophy of the
body: when he thinks the body he attempts to think it not at the level of consciousness or perception, but at the level of the material and physiological. I do not feel
that we should privilege this level, but we cannot neglect it or give it a derivative
status. Indeed, the challenge is to reconcile the identity of the transcendental and
material. For Merleau-Pontys relation to Spinoza and a defense of his fundamental kinship with Spinozas monistic metaphysics, see Henry Pietersma, La
place de Spinoza dans le pense de Merleau-Ponty: convergence, entre les deux
penseurs, International Studies in Philosophy 20, no. 3 (1988): 89-93.
229. I prefer the term materialist to naturalist because of the latters biological
and anti-metaphysical connotation. I do not see Merleau-Ponty as ultimately a
philosopher concerned with the workings of the natural world of science (in part
because he is not concerned with body as physical object), but with giving a nonreductive account of situations whose subjective and objective features are
explicable in corporeal terms.

254Notes
230. For an extended discussion of these points, and an account of why realist commitments are difficult for phenomenologists, see Tom Sparrow, The End of
Phenomenology.

Chapter 3
231. See Daniel Guerrire, Table of Contents of Phenomenology of Perception:
Translation and Pagination, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 10, no.
1 (1979): 65-69.
232. On the transcendental status of the lifeworld, see Husserl, The Crisis of the
European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, 139-141. On the anonymity of
the lifeworld, see 29.
233. Sullivan, Living Across and Through Skins, 71, 74.
234. Johanna Oksala, Female Freedom: Can the Lived Body Be Emancipated?, in
Feminist Interpretations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ed. Dorothea Olkowski and Gail
Weiss (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2006), 212.
235. Judith Butler, Sexual Ideology and Phenomenological Description: A Feminist
Critique of Merleau-Pontys Phenomenology of Perception, in The Thinking Muse:
Feminism and Modern French Philosophy, eds. Jeffner Allen and Iris Marion Young
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 95.
236. Sentir denotes at once to sense and to feel and thus contains, like sens (sense,
direction), an affective and detective valence. It is synonymous with percevoir,
which means to detect, hence the trouble with trying to discriminate the two
phenomena.
237. Taylor Carman, Sensation, Judgment, and the Phenomenal Field, in The
Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, eds. Taylor Carman and Mark B.N.
Hansen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 52.
238. Carman, Sensation, Judgment, and the Phenomenal Field, 54.
239. Al-Saji, The Site of Affect in Husserls Phenomenology, 52.
240. Al-Saji, The Site of Affect in Husserls Phenomenology, 53.
241. Erwin Straus, The Primary World of Senses, 7.
242. Straus, The Primary World of Senses, 18.
243. Straus, The Primary World of Senses, 101.
244. Straus, The Primary World of Senses, 200.
245. Straus, The Primary World of Senses, 208.
246. Renaud Barbaras, Affectivity and Movement: The Sense of Sensing in Erwin
Straus, trans. Elizabeth A. Behnke, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 3
(2004): 218-219.
247. See Merleau-Pontys discussions of the Umwelt and Uexkll in Nature,
167ff./220ff.
248. Barbaras, Affectivity and Movement, 219. Cf. Straus, The Primary World of
Senses, 211ff.

Notes255
249. Barbaras, Affectivity and Movement, 220.
250. Alphonso Lingis, The Sensitive Flesh, in The Collegium Phaenomenologicum: The
First Ten Years, eds J.C. Sallis, G. Moneta, and J. Taminiaux (Dordrecht: Kluwer,
1989), 234.
251. Lingis, The Sensitive Flesh, 239.
252. Merleau-Ponty only apparently contradicts this statement later on in the
Phenomenology (PP 317/367), when he writes, Hardness and softness, roughness
and smoothness, moonlight and sunlight, present themselves in our recollection,
not pre-eminently as sensory contents, but as certain kinds of symbiosis, certain
ways the outside has of invading us and certain ways we have of meeting this invasion. The qualification of sensing as a symbiosis tempers his use of invasion in this passage.
253. Michael B. Smith, Merleau-Pontys Aesthetics, in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics
Reader, 209.
254. Smith, Merleau-Pontys Aesthetics, 208.
255. Alphonse de Waehlens, Merleau-Ponty: Philosopher of Painting, in The
Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, 178.
256. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence, in Signs.
Hereafter ILVS.
257. de Waehlens, Merleau-Ponty: Philosopher of Painting, 187.
258. It is necessary that meaning and signs, the form and matter of perception, be
related from the beginning and that, as we say, the matter of perception be pregnant with its form (PrP 15/48).
259. Alia Al-Saji, A Past Which Has Never Been Present: Bergsonian Dimensions
in Merleau-Pontys Theory of the Prepersonal, Research in Phenomenology 38
(2008): 63.
260. Al-Saji, A Past Which Has Never Been Present, 47.
261. Al-Saji, A Past Which Has Never Been Present, 55.
262. Al-Saji, A Past Which Has Never Been Present, 58.
263. Al-Saji, A Past Which Has Never Been Present, 67.
264. This is not an act of judgment, but the work of operative intentionality, or what
Husserl calls passive synthesis. Speaking of this synthesis, Merleau-Ponty
writes: What is called passivity is not the acceptance by us of an alien reality, or a
causal action exerted upon us from the outside: it is being encompassed, being in
a situationprior to which we do not existwhich we are perpetually resuming
and which is constitutive of us (PP 427/488).
265. Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 69.
266. Vasseleu, Textures of Light, 56, points out that Merleau-Pontys choice of the hand
as the paradigm of reversibility neglects other forms of tactility proper to the body.
As she puts it, not all tactile surfaces of the body can be felt as both self and other
self-reflexively, and the mucous membranes of the eyelids, lips and labia can touch
each other together but cannot be differentiated as a body feeling or being felt,
that is, a body reversible at will.

256Notes
267. Merleau-Ponty defends this point in VI 142/187: The handshake too is reversible; I can feel myself touched as well and at the same time as touching.
268. Beata Stawarska, From the Body Proper to the Flesh: Merleau-Ponty on
Intersubjectivity, in Feminist Interpretations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 92.
269. Diana Coole, Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics After Anti-Humanism (Lanham:
Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 246.
270. Coole, Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics, 247.
271. Stawarska, From Body Proper to the Flesh, 99.
272. Elie Wiesel illustrates this point in a passage from Night, trans. Marion Wiesel
(New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 53, which recounts his experience in a WWII
concentration camp: One day when Idek was venting his fury, I happened to
cross his path. He threw himself on me like a wild beast, beating me in the chest,
on my head, throwing me to the ground and picking me up again, crushing me
with ever more violent blows, until I was covered in blood. As I bit my lips in
order not to howl with pain, he must have mistaken my silence for defiance and
so he continued to hit me harder and harder. Abruptly, he calmed down and sent
me back to work as if nothing had happened. As if he had taken part in a game in
which both roles were of equal importance.
273. Ahmed, A Phenomenology of Whiteness, 161.
274. Coole, Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics, 141.
275. Hass, Merleau-Pontys Philosophy, 129.
276. The idea that the flesh is narcissistic does not help explain the individuation
of bodies, which seems to me to be a major shortcoming of The Visible and the
Invisibles metaphysics. To explain individuation and intercorporeal conflict, we
would need a story about how and why the narcissistic flesh turns against itself in
the case of violence and, ultimately, destroys the bodies that emerge out of it.
277. As Fred Evans, Solar love: Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and the Fortunes of
Perception, Continental Philosophy Review 31 (1998): 178, points out, this is not
a typical teleology. The imminent coincidence that haunts the chiasms of the
flesh is less restrictive than the teleological form of convergence [from PP]; it
acknowledges only that flesh tends (though without success) to rejoin itself and
does not specify more particular horizons that must be fulfilled. But imminent
coincidence still serves to ensure stability and the community suggested by the
idea of a common flesh.
278. Levinas, Sensibility, 66/171.
279. Irigaray, commenting on the privilege of the seer and visibility in Merleau-Ponty,
writes the following: A carnal look, which becomes that which gives perspective to things: shelters them, gives birth to them, wraps them in the touch of a
visibility that is one with them, keeps them from ever being naked, envelops them
in a conjunctive tissue of visibility, an exterior-interior horizon in which, henceforth, they appear without being able to be distinguished, separated, or torn away
from it. The privileging of vision effects a reduction of the tactile to the visible
and fulfills a form of idealism, under its material, carnal aspects. Luce Irigaray,
An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1993), 153-154; 175.

Notes257
280. Sensory experience [lexprience sensorielle] is unstable, and alien to natural perception, which we achieve with our whole body all at once, and which opens on a
world of inter-acting senses [un monde intersensoriel] (PP 225/260-261).
281. I am thinking here of the function of our autonomic nervous system, which for the
most part regulates organ function and controls the bodys homeostasis. It is possible to see proprioception as a form of autonomic regulation and to consider the
sensory life of the body as predominantly an autonomic system.
282. On the carnal form of the imperative, its practical and ethical force, see Lingis,
The Imperative. I will expand on this theme below.
283. For further critique of convergence, cf. Evans, Solar Love, section 4.
284. Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, trans. Anne Boyman (New York:
Zone, 2001), 26.
285. In Leibnizs philosophy of mind, petites perceptions are perceptions which are not
apperceived, that is, are in a sense unconscious. Macroperception, or perception of things, is said to arise from aggregates of these microperceptions. See the
Preface to G.W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, eds. Peter Remnant
and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). On a
certain Leibnizianism in Merleau-Ponty, see Barbaras, who does not introduce
the notion of petites perceptions or Leibnizs perception-apperception distinction
(The Being of the Phenomenon, chapter 13). See also C.S. Peirce, as well as Joseph
Jastrow, On Small Differences of Sensation for a discussion of sensations so
faint that we are not fairly aware of having them. <http://psychclassics.yorku.
ca//Peirce/small-diffs.htm>
286. Proprioception is the bodys means of maintaining its posture and keeping aware
of its ecological positioning. Gallagher distinguishes proprioceptive awareness, a
conscious process, from proprioceptive information, a non-conscious process. The
latter is denoted as the result of physiological stimuli activating certain proprioceptors, but not consciously experienced by the subject. On this view, proprioceptive information, generated at peripheral proprioceptors and registered at strategic
sites in the brain, but below the threshold of consciousness, operates as part of
the system that constitutes the body schema. This aspect of proprioception is not
something we can be directly aware of. How the Body Shapes the Mind, 46.

Chapter 4
287. Following convention, when I capitalize Other, I am referring to the human
other. Otherwise, other refers to otherness generally, whatever is not-I.
288. When I speak of Levinass materialism I mean that his descriptions of embodiment display a marked concern for the matter of subjectivity. But, of course, he
is not endorsing properly physicalist or mechanistic accounts of bodily action.
Instead, he offers us a phenomenology of physiological concepts like nourishment,
effort, and labor. If his approach on this score is close to another materialist, it is
perhaps Marx, as well as (surprisingly) Nietzsche.
289. Emmanuel Levinas, Is Ontology Fundamental?, in Entre Nous: Thinking-ofthe-Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1998), 7-9.

258Notes
290. For instance, see Robert John Sheffler Manning, Interpreting Otherwise than
Heidegger: Emmanuel Levinass Ethics as First Philosophy (Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University Press, 1993), 95ff.
291. David Wood, Some Questions for My Levinasian Friends, in Addressing Levinas,
eds. Eric Sean Nelson, Antje Kapust, and Kent Still (Evanston: Northwestern
University Press, 2005), argues that we cannot separate ontology from ethics
(156). He also helpfully displays some of Levinass basic ontological prejudices,
including his Cartesian notion of substance (158).
292. For an account of Levinass affinity with Kantian ethical theory, see Catherine
Chalier, What Ought I to Do? Morality in Kant and Levinas, trans. Jane Marie Todd
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).
293. Emmanuel Levinas, From Consciousness to Wakefulness, in Discovering
Existence with Husserl, trans. Richard A. Cohen and Michael B. Smith (Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 1998), 154.
294. On the primacy of the practical/equipmental, see Heidegger, Being and Time, 15.
295. John Sallis, Levinas and the Elemental, Research in Phenomenology 28 (1998):
156.
296. On the productivity of desire, see TI 33-35/3-5.
297. On the alimentary aspects of Levinass ethics, and the phenomenology of alimentation generally, see Sparrow, Enabling/Disabling Sensation.
298. For an alternative discussion of individuation, which compares Levinas and
Heidegger and focuses on the individuating function of death, see Michael Lewis,
Individuation in Levinas and Heidegger: The One and the Incompleteness of
Beings, Philosophy Today 51, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 198-215.
299. It may be asked what the subject could possibly be prior to its taking up of a position. I think an answer could be sought in Levinass view that we, as embodied
creatures, live a life prior to reflection which is characterized by a nearly pure,
almost infantile, affective life. Fatigue and indolence, for instance, first and
foremost belong to the affective realm before they become cognitive objects (EE
11/30). They belong to a pre-reflective sphere which, if it does not precede, it at
least takes priority over, consciousness. And insofar as, for the phenomenologist,
subjectivity requires conscious reflection, a pre-conscious event would have to be
granted a certain anonymity, and thus belong to no subject in particularor, it
belongs forever to the subjects past. What is perhaps needed here is an analysis
of maternity (Levinas provides content for this in OB) and the prenatal life of
the infant. Intrauterine existence seems a good contender for anonymity from
the perspective of conscious reflection, but of course it is beyond the reach of the
phenomenologist.
300. John E. Drabinski, From Representation to Materiality, International Studies in
Philosophy 30, no. 4 (1998): 30.
301. Emmanuel Levinas, The Ruin of Representation, in Discovering Existence with
Husserl, 112/127.
302. Levinas, The Ruin of Representation, 115/129.
303. Levinas, The Ruin of Representation, 116/130-131.
304. Levinas, The Ruin of Representation, 116/131.

Notes259
305. Sallis, Levinas and the Elemental, 157.
306. Vasseleu (Textures of Light, 46), however, attempts to bring to the fore the importance of the elemental in Merleau-Ponty when she writes: Lighting is the lining
of what it is that we see, the assumed intermediary directing or supporting our
gaze. We do not see. We perceive in conformity with a carnal light that already
knows and sees, because it is not detachable from the things we see. Lighting supports our gaze as a background of sensibility.
307. Levinas, The Ruin of Representation, 119/134.
308. Emmanuel Levinas, Intentionality and Sensation, in Discovering Existence with
Husserl, 139/149 (translation modified).
309. Levinas, Intentionality and Sensation, 139/150.
310. Levinas, Intentionality and Sensation, 145/156.
311. I am somewhat skeptical that there is a continuity between Husserls and Levinass
conceptions of the sensible. I have noted a few of my concerns with Husserls theory of sensation in chapter 1. Because I cannot here explore the merit of Levinass
interpretation of Husserl, I point the reader to John E. Drabinski, Sensibility and
Singularity: The Problem of Phenomenology in Levinas (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 2001).
312. Bernard Andrieu, Brains in the Flesh: Prospects for a Neurophenomenology,
Janus Head 9, no. 1 (2006): 138.
313. I retrieve this concept in the following chapter, drawing out its implications for a
plastic conception of embodiment.
314. In TI 167/141 Levinas speaks of the action of a body which would seek to escape
its entrenchment in being as unfolding according to a final causality guided by
the hand. The end is a term the hand searches for in the risk of missing it. The
body as possibility of a handand its whole corporeity can be substituted for the
handexists in the virtuality of this movement betaking itself toward the tool.
The critical edge of these remarks is certainly aimed at Heideggers ontology (with
its primacy of the ready-to-hand), but it applies as well to the privilege of the grasp
or hold (prise) in Merleau-Ponty, as does Levinass examination of the caress.
315. Silvia Benso, The Breathing of the Air: Presocratic Echoes in Levinas, in
Levinas and the Ancients, eds. Brian Schroeder and Silvia Benso (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2008), 20.
316. Benso, The Breathing of the Air, 20.
317. The anarchic and unrepresentable source of the elemental belongs to an unstable
future that brings with it the disintegration of what has been done in the past. It
is the promise of insecurity, the constant threat of the end of enjoyment, menace
and destruction. We combat this insecurity with work and labor (TI 141-142,
146/115, 120).
318. Levinas is drawing here upon a tradition in French philosophy concerned with
thinking the autoaffection of the body as the initiation of subjectivity. This
tradition includes modern figures like Maine de Biran and Ravaisson, and is
best represented contemporarily by Michel Henry. Ravaisson notes how effort is
suspended between action and passion, and how effort comprises not only the
primary condition, but also the archetype and essence, of consciousness. It is
evident that he, like Levinas, is trying to conceive the birth of consciousness in the

260Notes
voluntary initiation of a position against the resistance of the material world. See
Ravaisson, Of Habit, 43.
319. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, trans. Donald A.
Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), 45.
320. Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, trans.
Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 26, 27.
321. Vigilance is the condition of the ego riveted to being, that is, unable to not exist. The ego is swept away by the fatality of being, says Levinas (EE 61/110).
Whereas consciousness would be an escape from existence, vigilance is an encounter with existence that lacks intuition, illumination, and attention. Indeed, it
is an event wherein the ego given over to the existence as though existence, rather
than the ego, were consciousness. In the vigilance of insomnia the ego becomes
the object of the night which subjects it (EE 62-63/EE; TO 48-51/27-30).
322. Levinas suggests that a direct encounter with the il y a is perhaps possible through
a thought experiment wherein we imagine the total destruction of everything, but
such a feat of the imagination seems dubious. See Levinas, EE 31, 35, 44, 51/6061, 66, 80, 91-92.
323. From a methodological perspective, it is important to note that Levinas sees
his descriptions of vigilance, insomnia, and so on as going beyond the limits of
phenomenological description. They are beyond intuition and argued for analogically (see EE 8/26, where Levinas writes that our relationship with being is
called a relationship only by analogy). The subject is cast as an object, the ego
is suspended, and the phenomena under examination are supposed to take place
before the advent of consciousness. Thus, Levinas writes: Our affirmation of an
anonymous vigilance goes beyond the phenomena, which already presupposes an
ego, and thus eludes descriptive phenomenology (EE 63/112). The direct experience of insomnia allows us to infer a possible relationship with being in which we
are rendered anonymous beings.
324. Merleau-Ponty likes to speak of the matter of perception as pregnant with its
form (PrP 15/48) so as to avoid the notion that it is perception or consciousness
that informs matter. Levinas, by contrast, holds that matter lies in the depths of
things, but is concealed by the light of intentionality which shrouds it with forms
(TI 192-193/167). Against the tradition, the interpretation of light at work in
Levinass texts opposes the idea that light illuminates and unconceals. Matter,
he says, is the dark background of existence. It is this materiality that makes
things appear to us in a night, like the monotonous presence that bears down on
us in insomnia (EE 55/98).
325. On the human-centered nature of Levinass take on things, see Harman, Guerrilla
Metaphysics, chapter 3 and Graham Harman, Levinas and the Triple Critique of
Heidegger, Philosophy Today 53 (Winter 2009): 407-413. On the negative implications of Levinass position for environmental philosophy, see Christian Diehm,
Facing Nature: Levinas Beyond the Human, Philosophy Today 44, no. 1 (Spring
2000): 51-59.
326. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and
Alan J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), Second Treatise, 16.
327. If it is conceded that sensing for Levinas is analogous to what Merleau-Ponty
calls operative intentionality, then the pre-reflective content of the latter must
be stressed in contrast with its complicity with intentionality of act. That is, the

Notes261
anonymous dimension of sensing must be regarded as discontinuous with the
content of perception. The difference is subtle, but important: it results in the
decentering of the lived body, which in turn implies a decentering of the primacy
of perception.
328. The resistance/deferral of possession inherent in the caress suggests an ethical
interpretation which would oppose the apprehensiveness of the caress to the ability of the grasp. This notion is at play in Irigaray, The Fecundity of the Caress: A
Reading of Levinas, Totality and Infinity, Phenomenology of Eros, in An Ethics of
Sexual Difference.
329. As Levinas says, our consenting to [rhythm] is inverted into a participation.
Emmanuel Levinas, Reality and Its Shadow, in Collected Philosophical Papers, 4.
330. I take it that this is what Levinas is implying when he says, An image is interesting, without the slightest utility, interesting in the sense of involving, in the
etymological senseto be among things which should have had only the status of
objects (Reality and Its Shadow, 3-4). Contained in the Latin for involve,
involvere, is the sense of folding into or enveloping, as one would fold together the
ingredients of a recipe.
331. Levinas, Reality and Its Shadow, 5.
332. Levinas, Reality and Its Shadow, 5.
333. On the problem of diachronicity, see Meillassoux, After Finitude, 112-113, who
goes even further than Levinas in thinking the metaphysical consequences of the
diachronic.
334. See Levinass remarks on the meanwhile in Reality and Its Shadow, 8-11, and
Diachrony and Representation, in Entre Nous, 159-177/177-197.
335. Levinas, Reality and Its Shadow, 5. For further investigation of this point and
others in this chapter, see Tom Sparrow, Levinas Unhinged (Winchester, UK: Zero
Books, 2013).
336. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 37.
337. Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 39.
338. Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 31.
339. Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 32.
340. Panagia, The Political Life of Sensation, 108.
341. Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 33-35.
342. Levinas writes in TI 188-189/162: A phenomenology of sensation as enjoyment,
a study of what we could call its transcendental function, which does not necessarily issue in the object nor in the qualitative specification of an object would
be required. Also: A transcendental phenomenology of sensation would justify
the return to the term sensation to characterize the transcendental function of the
quality corresponding to it.
343. Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 35.
344. See Levinas, Sensibility, 65/170.
345. See the section entitled The Glory of the Infinite, especially the remarks on infinity and illeity, in OB 140-153/179-195. Radical passivity is proper to the human

262Notes
Other for Levinas, because the human Other is elevated to a quasi-divine status
which renders its vulnerability unique, even sacred, and my responsibility for it
infinite.
346. Given this remark, I think a fruitful exchange over the question of identity can
take place between Levinas and architecture theorist Michael Benedikt, who
writes in For An Architecture of Reality (New York: Lumen, 1987), 4, that we
build our best and necessary sense of an independent yet meaningful reality
when we take part in direct esthetic experiences of the real. If our direct aesthetic
experiences are sensuous and constitutive of our subjectivity, as Levinas suggests,
then the aesthetics of built space takes on an ethical quality. I explore this possibility further in my conclusion.
347. Lingis writes in Foreign Bodies (London: Routledge. 1994), 210, of the imperative
that our sensibility expose itself to the element in which sensory patterns and forces
take form: the earth, the flux, the air, the light.
348. Lingis, The Imperative, 67-68. For a further exploration of sensation, see the collection of essays published as Sensation: Intelligibility in Sensibility.
349. Levinas, Diachrony and Representation, 171/190. For another discussion of the
ethical implications of this a priori subjection and the role of sensibility in it, see
Chalier, What Ought I to Do?, 87, 93.
350. Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 312. For an alternative view of
interobjectivity as a replacement for intersubjectivity, see Morton, Ecology without
Nature, 106.
351. Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, 288, 290. Italics in original.
352. On the dark side of ecology, see Morton, The Ecological Thought, chapter 2.
353. Stella Sandford, Levinas in the Realm of the Senses: Transcendence and
Intelligibility, Angelaki 4, no. 3 (1999): 66.
354. If in Totality and Infinity the autoaffection of enjoyment holds a certain priority,
in Otherwise than Being heteroaffection takes precedence. This shift contrasts
the trajectory of Michel Henry, one of Levinass allies in the theological turn in
French phenomenology. For Henry, immanence means autoaffection; for Levinas,
immanence comes to involve a constitutive heteronomy. See Michel Henry, The
Essence of Manifestation, trans. Girard Etzkorn (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008) and
Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, trans. Girard Etzkorn (The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff, 1975).
355. Sensation is the divergence of temporality, whereas sensing reveals the temporality
of being (OB 34, 63/43, 79-80).
356. Dennis King Keenan, Death and Responsibility: The Work of Levinas (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1999), 43.
357. The relation between self and other is never reversible for Levinas, but always a
matter of irreversibility. As he writes in TI 35-36/5-6: The metaphysician and
the other do not constitute a simple correlation, which would be reversible. The
reversibility of a relation where the terms are indifferently read from left to right
and from right to left would couple them the one to the other. The intended
transcendence would be thus reabsorbed into the unity of the system, destroying
the radical alterity of the other.

Notes263
358. Sandford, Levinas in the Realm of the Senses, 67.
359. Rudolf Bernet, The Encounter with the Stranger: Two Interpretations of the
Vulnerability of the Skin, in The Face of the Other and the Trace of God, ed. Jeffrey
Bloechl (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 45-46.
360. Bernet, The Encounter with the Stranger, 46.
361. Graham Harman argues this same point, albeit for different reasons and with different metaphysical concerns, in Aesthetics as First Philosophy: Levinas and the
Non-Human, Naked Punch 9 (Summer/Fall 2007): 21-30.
362. Sandford, Levinas in the Realm of the Senses, 69-70.
363. David Michael Levin, The Embodiment of the Categorical Imperative: Kafka,
Foucault, Benjamin, Adorno and Levinas, Philosophy and Social Criticism 27, no.
4 (2001): 13.
364. Emmanuel Levinas, No Identity, in Collected Philosophical Papers, 146/92-93
(emphasis added).
365. Levinas, No Identity, 146/93.
366. More succinctly put in Levinas, TO, 75/63: In death the existing of the existent
is alienated.
367. Dan Zahavi, Alterity in Self, in Ipseity and Alterity: Interdisciplinary Approaches
to Intersubjectivity, ed. Shaun Gallagher et al. (Rouen: Presses Universitaires de
Rouen, 2004), 145.
368. For a non-anthropocentric engagement with Levinasian ethics that extends ethical consideration to inanimate things, see Benso, The Face of Things.
369. It is tempting to call this privileging a humanism, but not without qualification.
Levinas places such an emphasis on the passivity, responsibility, and subjection
of human beings that it seems as though he could be called an anti-humanist.
Indeed, I am arguing here that the material/sensuous world, for Levinas, enacts
a certain displacement of human sovereignty. But this is from an ontological perspective that he does not identify with. Given Levinass explicit ethical commitments, it is clear that humans remain central, as both moral agents and as objects
of moral consideration.

Chapter 5
370. John Mullarkey notes a conflict of attitudes between thinkers like MerleauPonty, Sartre, and David Levin, on the one hand, and Bataille, Deleuze, and
Foucault, on the other. While I agree that this divergence of attitude is palpable,
it cannot be taken to indicate two fundamentally opposed philosophies of the
body. Mullarkey concurs that the two positions are not incompatible. See John
C. Mullarkey, Duplicity in the Flesh: Bergson and Current Philosophy of the
Body, Philosophy Today 38, no. 4 (Winter 1994): 340.
371. James, Principles, vol. 1, 105.
372. Ronald Bruzina, Method and Materiality in the Phenomenology of
Intersubjectivity, Philosophy Today 41, SPEP Supplement (1997): 131. Bruzina
enumerates four primary modes of powerlessness derived from our finite

264Notes
relationship to nature: object independence; exposure to accident; sleep and fainting; dependence on temporality.
373. Bruzina writes in Method and Materiality (131) that the independence of nature, and the correlative powerlessness human being feels regarding it, is internal
to human being precisely in its bodiliness. It is in this materially functioning
feeling that the interaction of human persons in a bond of community must be
explicated.
374. See chapter 4 of After Finitude for the suggestion that lurking behind the stability
of natural laws is a chaos that could break through at any time.
375. On the malleability of form and the primacy of power over purpose, see Nietzsche,
On the Genealogy of Morality, Second Treatise, 12.
376. See Mumford, Dispositions, 5-6.
377. Mach, The Analysis of Sensations, 4.
378. On dying without becoming a corpse, or the body as a system of relations, see
Martial Guerolt, Spinoza IILme (Paris: Aubier, 1997), 559-560 and Daniel
Selcer, Singular Things and Spanish Poets: Spinoza on Corporeal Individuation
(paper presented at Spinoza and Bodies conference, University of Dundee,
September 10-11, 2009).
379. See the brief preface concerning the nature of bodies in Part II (72-76) of
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992).
380. Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, Definition 7.
381. Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, Proposition 13, Lemma 3, Definition.
382. As Spinoza puts it in Part II, Proposition 13, Lemma 4: If from a body, or an
individual thing composed of a number of bodies, certain bodies are separated,
and at the same time a like number of other bodies of the same nature take their
place, the individual thing will retain its nature as before, without any change in
its form.
383. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San
Francisco: City Lights, 1988), 123. Deleuze draws here an analogy between kinetics and musical form, particularly how the latter is determined by the relations of
speed and slowness between the sound particles of a given piece. What Deleuze
is calling musical form is here quite close to what Merleau-Ponty calls style. It is
possible to think of painting in this way too, especially that of Czanne, with all its
visual mobility.
384. Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 125; Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, A
Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1987), 241.
385. Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 123.
386. You will define an animal, or a human being, not by its form, its organs, and its
functions, and not as a subject either; you will define it by the affects of which it is
capable. Affective capacity, with a maximum threshold and a minimum threshold,
is a constant in Spinoza. Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 124. For more on
this new taxonomy, see Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage
Theory and Social Complexity (London: Continuum, 2006), chapter 2.

Notes265
387. For a remarkably clear exposition of this idea, see Manuel DeLanda, Immanence
and Transcendence in the Genesis of Form, The South Atlantic Quarterly 96, no. 3
(Summer 1997): 499-514.
388. Toscano, The Theatre of Production, 122.
389. John Dewey, Art As Experience (New York: Penguin, 1934), 137, italics omitted.
390. Dewey, Art As Experience, 147, 150, 154.
391. Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 125-126.
392. On how flat ontology democratizes existence, see Levi Bryant, The Democracy of
Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011).
393. Grosz, Volatile Bodies, 164-165.
394. Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 179.
395. No, Action in Perception, 50. By allowing networks like the Internet to process and
store data for us, we free ourselves to concentrate on other tasks.
396. See Clark, Being There, 45-47. I must tip my hat to Levi Bryant for pointing out
the affinity between my work and Clarks.
397. Clark, Being There, 191. On society as a dynamic system, see DeLanda, A New
Philosophy of Society.
398. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2010), 23.
399. On difference-making as the mark of reality, see Levi Bryant, The Ontic
Principle, in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds.
Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman (Melbourne: re.press, 2011),
261-278.
400. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 32.
401. Grosz, Volatile Bodies, 167.
402. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 33.
403. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham:
Duke University Press, 2002), 15. See Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 246.
404. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 253.
405. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 260.
406. DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society, 28.
407. Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark
Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983),
36.
408. Andy Clark, Re-Inventing Ourselves: The Plasticity of Embodiment, Sensing,
and Mind, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 32 (2007): 264.
409. DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society, 50.
410. On masochism as machinism, see Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus,
155-156.
411. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 344-347.

266Notes
412. For other accounts of the machinic, the work of Donna Haraway and N.
Katherine Hayles are good resources. For a phenomenological perspective, see
Don Ihde, Bodies in Technology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2002); for commentary on Deleuzes concept of machine, see Slavoj iek, Organs
Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2004), 15-19.
413. I borrow this facile distinction from Mullarkey, Duplicity in the Flesh, 340, who
argues that Bergson fits in neither the modern nor postmodern era when it comes
to thinking of the body.
414. I mean to suggest here that when Merleau-Ponty writes of the body, he often has
in mind the average able body, complete with its ability to circumnavigate objects,
explore them unceasingly, and move itself about the world with relative freedom.
This does not entail that Merleau-Ponty neglects to analyze the disabled body (see
his analysis of Schneider, for example), but that one cannot help but see Schneider
as somehow deficient when compared to the body which Phenomenology of
Perception generally speaks about. There is something special about Schneider.
415. See Panagia, The Political Life of Sensation, particularly the discussion of
Caravaggio and Bacon in chapter 4. In effect, Panagias entire book is an exploration of the political valence of the zone of indistinction, or what I am here calling
the anonymity of the aesthetic.
416. Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, trans. Sebastian Rand
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 5.
417. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 12.
418. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 6, 8. See also Andrieu, Brains in
the Flesh, 148.
419. For the open and closed senses of plasticity discussed by Malabou, see What
Should We Do with Our Brain?, 15-16.
420. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 24.
421. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 30, 38.
422. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage,
1977), 135.
423. Johanna Oksala, Foucault on Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2005), 126ff.
424. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 138.
425. Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, in The Foucault Reader, ed.
Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 87 (emphasis added). Judith Butler
has argued that, despite his proclamations to the contrary, Foucaults body does
display certain constants. This is evident in his employment, in Nietzsche,
Genealogy, History, of metaphors and figures of inscription, and his description of the body as a surface. Moreover, it is present in Discipline and Punish,
wherein Foucault argues that, for disciplined prisoners, the law is not literally
internalized, but incorporated on [their] bodies. Butler is worried that Foucault
is retaining a notion of the body as a pre-cultural material medium upon which
historical significations are inscribed, a notion she completely rejects because of its
complicity with naturalized gender norms. Butlers critique is right to target this
complicity, but if what we have said about brain plasticity is correct, then we have
some reason to imagine the brain (or the body) as a surface of inscription, albeit a

Notes267
surface which is less like a blank slate and more like a rolled out piece of dough. It
could be argued that the neuronal determination of the brain is culturally formed,
but this does not mean that its form is indiscriminately malleable or without certain biological necessities. See Judith Butler, Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily
Inscriptions, The Journal of Philosophy 86, no. 11 (November 1989): 603, 605.
426. I am relying to some extent on Mumfords refutation of event ontology in
Dispositions, chapter 3.
427. Catherine Malabou, Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity,
trans. Carolyn Shread (Malden: Polity, 2012).
428. Andrieu, Brains in the Flesh, 137.
429. Andrieu, Brains in the Flesh, 137.
430. Carlisle suggests that there are four basic conditions of habit, which may be regarded as modifications of action: retention, synthesis, affectivity, and plasticity.
See Creatures of Habit, 26.
431. Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1993), 293.
432. James, Principles, vol. 1, 104-105.
433. James, Principles, vol. 1, 107-108.
434. Clark, Re-Inventing Ourselves, 272.
435. For an updated version of how neural maps are built up from an organisms
interaction with the topology of its environment, see Johnson, The Meaning of the
Body, 126-134. Johnson makes the connection between neural maps and behavior in terms of plasticity, and argues the non-reductionist point I am establishing
here: we must always be clear that an organism never actually experiences its
neural maps as internal mental structures. We do not experience the maps, but
rather through them we experience a structured world full of patterns and qualities (132).
436. Carlisle, Creatures of Habit, 33.
437. Carlisle, Creatures of Habit, 33.
438. James, Principles, vol. 1, 115. Emphasis in original.
439. James, Principles, vol. 1, 118.
440. James, Principles, vol. 1, 120.
441. Cited in James, Principles, vol. 1, 118.
442. Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, 179-180.
443. See, for example, Henri Bergson, Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R.
Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Brereton (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame
Press, 1977).
444. I am following a line of argument that is found in Bernard Williams, Simon
Blackburn, and Alphonso Lingis. It holds that, although our ethical commitments
may include cognitive processes and the rational weighing of maxims, we really
only act on what we value, that is, what we feel is important. Nothing is important
in itself; importance derives from passionate attachment. See Bernard Williams,
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,

268Notes
1985), 182; Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1998), especially chapter 5; Alphonso Lingis, The First Person Singular (Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 2007), chapter 7.
445. This term is of course one of the key concepts of Phenomenology of Perception
and I will return to it in the following chapter to explicate Merleau-Pontys idea
of power. For a detailed study, see Aron Gurwitsch, The Field of Consciousness
(Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964).
446. DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society, 13, 15.
447. Brian Massumi, A Users Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from
Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 135.
448. John Protevi, Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 50.
449. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 314-315. Fuller analyses of performativity can be found in A Thousand Plateaus, but also in the work of Foucault,
Butler, and Althusser in the continental tradition; Austin and Searle, in the
analytic tradition.
450. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 312.
451. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 311.
452. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 314.
453. Rhythm gives us an immanent conception of form or code, as discussed earlier.
Consider what Massumi, A Users Guide, 51, writes: A pattern or repeated act is a
code. A code is always of a milieu, or relatively stable, often statistical, mixing of
elements. A code is the same as a form in the sense discussed above (an order
and organization of functions).
454. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 314.
455. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 317 (emphasis in original).
456. Hans Jonass The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 1966) is a notable exception to the claim that phenomenology generally neglects the natural and material aspects of our dependence
on the environment. It is true that Merleau-Ponty thematizes maturation in The
Childs Relations with Others, but I would contend that his concern is fundamentally psychological, and does not consider the growth of the body qua material
entity.
457. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 70, 77.
458. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 47.
459. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 38.
460. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: The Free Press, 1944), 44.
461. Alva No, Out of Our Heads (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 51.
462. James, Principles, vol. 1, 122. Italics in original.
463. John Dewey, Experience and Nature (Mineola: Dover, 1958), 281. Malabou
discusses the explosive connotation of plasticity and links this explosiveness to
vitality as such (What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 5, 72), a point I contest in
the following chapter.

Notes269
464. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, 75.
465. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, 75.
466. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, 76.
467. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, 83.
468. Casey, Getting Back into Place, 223.
469. Casey, Getting Back into Place, 224.
470. I am indebted to Patrick Craig for alerting me to this point in Caseys work and
for much helpful discussion of the problems of Caseys phenomenological method.
The problems in Caseys early work seem to be overcome in The World At a Glance
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), although I have not yet worked
through this text.
471. Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, third edition, trans.
James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 25.
472. Lingis, The Imperative, 3.
473. Lingis, The Imperative, 4.
474. Lingis, Sensation, 33.
475. Lingis, Sensation, 33.
476. Lingis, Sensation, 33, 35, 36-37.
477. Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 75.
478. Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 75, 76, note 13.
479. Andrieu, Brains in the Flesh, 137.
480. Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 78.
481. Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, 79.
482. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 50.
483. Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: Citadel,
1974), 231. For an ethnographic study of some of the themes under discussion, see
Nick Crossley, The Circuit Trainers Habitus: Reflexive Body Techniques and
the Sociality of the Workout, Body & Society 10, no. 1 (2004): 37-69.
484. Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, trans. John Bester (New York: Kodansha, 1970),
24-25.
485. Mishima, Sun and Steel, 25-26.
486. Lingis, Foreign Bodies, 82.
487. Mishima, Sun and Steel, 28, 32. Just as muscles slowly increase their resemblance
to steel, so we are gradually fashioned by the world.
488. Mishima, Sun and Steel, 26.
489. Metabolism is a key concept in Marx as well. For instance, in Capital, vol. 1, trans.
Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1992), 133, he calls labor the eternal natural
necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature. The term
appears several more times in his text.

270Notes
490. Peter Zumthor, Atmospheres (Basel: Birkhuser, 2006), 13. On this point, see
also Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Durham: Duke University Press,
2002).
491. Zumthor, Atmospheres, 23.
492. Zumthor, Atmospheres, 33. See also Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka,
Sensory Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
493. See Juhani Pallasmaa, An Architecture of the Seven Senses, in Steven Holl et al.
(eds.), Questions of Perception (San Francisco: William Stout, 2008), 36-37.
494. Pallasmaa, An Architecture of the Seven Senses, 30.
495. Pallasmaa, An Architecture of the Seven Senses, 31. The Sounds chapter of
Thoreaus Walden illustrates the aural identity of its namesake. The birdsongs,
train whistles and cars, bells, etc., that Thoreau records get coded as Walden.
From the standpoint of the ear, Walden just is this aggregate of sounds.
496. Pallasmaa, An Architecture of the Seven Senses, 36. Pallasmaa sees the skin as
central to this process. He explores this further in The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture
and the Senses, second edition (Academy Press, 2005).
497. Pallasmaa, An Architecture of the Seven Senses, 41.
498. Impressions are here taken in Humes non-representational sense to connote
the force they exert on us, whether physical (scraping, pinching, cutting) or affective (distress, somberness, elation). Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding, 10.
499. Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 127-128.
500. Dewey, Art As Experience, 37.
501. On the production of subjectivity from an empiricist standpoint, with an emphasis
on the function of habit, see Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay
on Humes Theory of Human Nature, trans. Constantin V. Boundas (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1991), especially chapter 5. See also Martin Jay, Songs
of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), chapter 4, which stages, between
Kant and Dewey, a confrontation over the bodys place in aesthetic experience.
502. Mach, The Analysis of Sensations, 6-7.
503. William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2 (New York: Dover, 1918), 35.
504. James, Principles, vol. 2, 8.
505. See chapter 1 for an alternate exposition of these points.
506. See what he says about the law of contrast in Principles, vol. 2, 13-31.
507. Heller-Roazen, The Inner Touch, 23.
508. Aristotle, De Anima, 415b25, says that no thing without soul can have sensations. As Heller-Roazen puts it, On the scale of increasing vital complexity and
diversification, a threshold separates those beings with a nutritive faculty, but not
more [i.e., plants], from those living things with more able souls. It is aisthsis.
The Inner Touch, 25.

Notes271
509. On this point, see Fred Evans, Unnatural Participations: Merleau-Ponty,
Deleuze, and Environmental Ethics, Philosophy Today 54, SPEP Supplement
(2010): 142-152.

Conclusion
510. Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 32.
511. Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, 32-33. See the opening scene of
chapter 1 above.
512. Spinoza, Ethics, Part III, Proposition 7; Part IV, Definition 8; Part 1, Proposition
11, Scholium (translation modified). In Spinoza and Politics, trans. Peter Snowdon
(London: Verso, 2008), tienne Balibar demonstrates the several ways in which
Spinozas metaphysics is identical to his practical philosophy. As he says, His
work is not divided into a metaphysics (or an ontology) on the one hand and a politics or an ethics, which are seen as secondary applications of first philosophy,
on the other. From the very beginning, his metaphysics is a philosophy of praxis,
of activity; and his politics is a philosophy, for it constitutes the field of experience
in which human nature acts and strives to achieve liberation (102).
513. Much of what is the individualism of the early nineteenth century has in truth
little to do with the nature of individuals. It goes back to a metaphysics which held
that harmony between man and nature can be taken for granted, if once certain
artificial restrictions upon man are removed. Human Nature and Conduct, 210.
514. For a critique of this view, see Elaine P. Miller, Bodies and the Power of
Vulnerability: Thinking Democracy and Subjectivity Outside the Logic of
Confrontation, Philosophy Today 46 (2002): 102-112.
515. Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The
New Press, 1997), 261.
516. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 23, 31-32.
517. Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, Proposition 13, Scholium; Part II, Definition 7 reads: By
singular things (res singulares) I mean things that are finite and have a determinate existence. If several singular things concur in one act in such a way as to
be all together the simultaneous cause of one effect, I consider them all, in that
respect, as one singular thing (translation modified).
518. Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson
and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 164.
519. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 70.
520. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 71.
521. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 72.
522. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 71.
523. This gap is embodied in the distance that exists between neurons and is emblematic of the aleatory aspect of self-creation. What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 36.

272Notes
524. See Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, trans.
Steven Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).
525. Catherine Malabou, Plasticity At the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction,
Deconstruction, trans. Carolyn Shread (New York: Columbia University Press,
2010), 61.
526. Friedrich Nietzsche, Why I Am a Destiny, 1, in On the Genealogy of Morals and
Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967).
527. Weiss, Refiguring the Ordinary, 87.
528. Weiss, Refiguring the Ordinary, 81, 87. Her solution is to show that MerleauPontys habit body affords us new possibilities for recreating our habits and, as a
result, dilating our being in the world.
529. Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, trans. Margaret
Sankey and Peter Cowley (London: Continuum, 2008), 29.
530. James, Principles, vol. 1, 104: The laws of Nature are nothing but the immutable
habits which the different elementary sorts of matter follow in their actions and
reactions upon each other.
531. Spinoza denies, on metaphysical grounds, that contingency (and, in a sense,
possibility) exists. The illusion of contingency and freedom is a product of our
ignorance of efficient causes (Ethics, Part I, Proposition 33, Scholium). See also
Michael LeBuffe, From Bondage to Freedom: Spinoza on Human Excellence (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2010), 34. Deweys defense of freedom puts a positive
spin on this ignorance to save the phenomenon, writing that if objective uncertainty is the stimulus to reflection, then variation in action, novelty and experiment, have a true meaning. Human Nature and Conduct, 213. It seems to me that
Deweys view is close to Merleau-Pontys in its treatment of freedom as a positive
phenomenon, but this definition evades the ontological question of freedom.
532. Discussing the nature of freedom, Dewey highlights how organization tends toward rigidity because there is no effective or objective freedom without organization. Human Nature and Conduct, 211, 212.
533. Pleasurable affects transition us to a greater degree of perfection, as Spinoza says
at Ethics, Part III, Proposition 11, Scholium.
534. No, Out of Our Heads, 49-50.
535. Dewey, Democracy and Education, 42, 44.
536. This idea, which follows Jacques Rancires analyses of how the sensible realm is
politically and aesthetically partitioned, is given clear explication in the Prologue
to Panagia, The Political Life of Sensation. See also Jacques Rancire, The Politics of
Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004).
537. Malabou, Plasticity At the Dusk of Writing, 67, italics omitted. I am following here
the dark political ecology of Timothy Mortons The Ecological Thought and the
ecological conception of politics advanced by Jane Bennett, particularly in chapter
7 of Vibrant Matter.
538. Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 17.
539. For more on how identity is done and undone, see Judith Butler, Undoing Gender
(London: Routledge, 2004).
540. Levinas, Reality and Its Shadow, 4.

Notes273
541. Panagia, The Political Life of Sensation, 108.
542. Many environmental aestheticians and architectural theorists, often inspired
by phenomenology, have already caught onto this. The work of Arakawa and
Gins is especially instructive, and I must thank Bobby George for leading me
to it. Foucault, too, was onto this, as is evidenced in his remarks on the relation
between technologies of domination and technologies of the self, and the possibility of reconstructing oneself by reconstructing the technologies of civilization.
See, for instance, About the Beginnings of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two
Lectures at Dartmouth, Political Theory 21, no. 2 (1993): 198-227.
543. Paul Duncum, A Case for an Art Education of Everyday Aesthetic Experiences,
Studies in Art Education 40, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 295-311. Cited in Saito,
Everyday Aesthetics, 14.
544. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 47, 211; Democracy and Education, chapter 4.
545. Spinoza, Ethics, Part III, Propositions 6-8; Part IV, Proposition 44, Scholium.
Compare Levinas on enjoyment.
546. Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 164.
547. Serres, The Five Senses, 28-29.
548. Spinoza, Ethics, Part I, Definition 7; Part IV, Definition 8; Proposition 18,
Scholium.
549. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, 59, italics omitted.
550. Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 127-128; Deleuze and Guattari, A
Thousand Plateaus, 256-257.
551. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 257.
552. Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, Proposition 49, Scholium; Part V, Proposition 10,
Scholium; Proposition 42, Scholium. This is a principle Spinoza adopts from the
Stoics. See Susan James, Spinoza the Stoic, in The Rise of Modern Philosophy, ed.
Tom Sorrell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 289-316. See also LeBuffe, From Bondage
to Freedom, 34.
553. Spinoza, Ethics, Part III, Proposition 2, Scholium.
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Plastic Bodies:
Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology
Tom Sparrow

of Levinas Unhinged (Zero Books, 2013) and The


End of Phenomenology (Edinburgh University Press,
2014). Whereas most contemporary treatments
of phenomenology approach it in a spirit of either
servitude or disdain, Sparrow is cut from a different
cloth. While deeply sympathetic to the historical
aims of phenomenology, Sparrow opposes the
first-person orientation of the phenomenological
method and its often unsatisfactory account of
embodiment. Plastic Bodies aims to reconstruct the
unpopular concept of sensation in the wake of the
rescue efforts made by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and
Emmanuel Levinas.

OPEN HUMANITIES PRESS


Cover design by Katherine Gillieson Illustration by Tammy Lu

Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology Tom Sparrow

This is the third book by Tom Sparrow, the author

With a foreword by
Catherine Malabou